Reviewing the Reviewers: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real GirlI thought it would be fun to take a look at some of my recent reviews and to compare them to paid critics who disagree with me. I was wrong. It’s kind of humiliating really, but I’ve done it, so here it is. Anyway, it’s much better than Search Engine Term of the Week.

I have to say, it’s weird writing a review in a vacuum and then opening your eyes to what the rest of the world is saying about a movie after the fact. I gave Lars and the Real Girl an enthusiastic 4.5 stars out of 5, but Metacritic gives it a tepid 67.

Obviously this is one you fall for or you don’t. I did. Many people didn’t. Here’s what some of the other critics are saying:

  • Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gives Lars a C: “Even [Gosling’s] mad skills at embodying misfit masculinity can’t sustain the plastic premise. Will no one talk to Lars honestly about the pitfalls of dating a golem?” Yeah Lisa, and maybe someone should tell Jimmy Stewart there is no such thing as an invisible rabbit while they’re at it. Buzz-kill.
  • Manohla Dargis betrays me with this one in the NY Times: “The film is palatable audience bait of average accomplishment that superficially recalls the plain style of Alexander Payne, but without any of the lacerating edges or moral ambiguity.” Ouch. That one’s gonna leave a mark.
  • Richard Roeper pulls his thumb out of his ass just long enough to point it downward: “I knew exactly where it was going and it didn’t offer any suprises,” he says. Man, I miss Siskel. At least he was funny when he was cranky.

On the other hand, I’m not completely alone in the woods on this one.

  • Robert Wilonsky says on the same Ebert & Roeper episode that Lars is one of his favorite movies of the year. I don’t know about this Wilonsky character. I think he writes for the Dallas Observer. I like him better than Roeper for sure, but he’s no Ebert. 
  • Kenneth Turan of the LA Times gets it. He calls Lars “a Frank Capra-style fable, a throwback tribute to the joys of friendship and community.” Right the fuck on, Ken!
  • Claudia Puig of USA today gives Lars 3.5 out of 4 stars and calls it “an original, amusing and heartfelt tale sharply written by Nancy Oliver.” Not bad for a McReview from McPaper. Anyway, I’ll take what I can get.
  • [Update 10/21] Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal rings in with the most effusive praise of all. He calls Lars “an endearing, intelligent and tender comedy” and “an almost perfect movie with flawless performances.” 

So what have we learned? Well, I’m a little surprised reviews of Lars are so mixed. I thought that even people who weren’t snowed by Little Miss Sunshine would be able to buy into Lars because it didn’t feel calculated or manipulative to me, yet here’s one of my favorite critics Manohla Dargis calling it “100 percent pure calculation.” It’s true, Manohla is a card carrying snob and it’s one of the things I like about her, but she really went to town on poor Lars. Ah well, that’s part of the fun of movies isn’t it? There’s something for everyone and not everything appeals to all people.

In the end, I stand by my recommendation, but if you feel you’ve had your fill of indie quirk, you might want to take my review with a grain of salt.

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14 thoughts on “Reviewing the Reviewers: Lars and the Real Girl

  1. Manohla is one of my favorite paid critics too. But she does get overly serious at times, focusing too exclusively on thinking through a movie rather than feeling it. Applying more rigorous expectations of art to material that never aspires to them.

    As you say, not everything appeals to everyone. We bring ourselves to each experience and we’re not even consistent – sometimes becoming enthusiastic about a film we initially disliked, or vice versa.

    But I don’t just read reviews to glean information that helps figure out the chances of my enjoying them. I also read them for the craft. On that front, this time around I enjoyed your review more than hers.

  2. I find myself circling the wagons to defend this film and I haven’t even seen it yet!

    Unless my instincts — and yours, too, CJ — are way off base, I’m gonna love this film.

  3. I hope it works for you Pierre. If it does, it’s the kind of movie that makes you glad there are movies. If it doesn’t….well you can see it’s a little like fingernails on the chalk board.

    No one I know personally has watched it yet and I’m dying to hear how it goes over.

  4. I can see why some critics didn’t like it at all. If you’re not willing to accept the premise, the plot itself will appear entirely convoluted and the characters will eventually appear unrealistic.

    Me? I bought the premise. Sure, some of it seemed a little too easy to play out one way or the other, but the performances were so strong and so honest and the movie itself so guileless that I couldn’t help but like it. Unlike Stranger than Fiction, which was too stylized for me to ever buy into or Little Miss Sunshine, which tried to hard to push buttons, Lars feels like a movie about real people reacting to a real situation as best they can. I don’t know. I was caught up in the performances. Worked for me.

  5. I’m relieved it worked for you Joel. It is very much a buy it or reject it prospect and I can totally see how some people just aren’t into it.

    It was just a little shocking to me to tap out a fairly glowing review then turn around and see people I like crapping all over it.

  6. It scored 76% fresh at green tomatoes across 91 reviews. And it scored 69 at metacritic. That’s a fairly positive critical response. And you wouldn’t want your own overall judgments to always mirror those of the critics you most admire. Perhaps they should be concerned that they didn’t emulate you on this one 🙂

    I’m with you Joel with regards your comments about Stranger Than Fiction (though there were still things to enjoy within it) and LMS.

  7. I’m on record (somewhere) as loving Stranger Than Fiction too, I hope that doesn’t reduce my already shakey credibility. Prior to the wider release, Lars was at a pretty dismal 67%. 76% is an improvement so I feel better.

  8. I just saw this tonight, I thought it was good but not great – and I couldn’t keep wondering all throughout, ‘what if this had been directed by David Cronenberg’ so that shows you where I’m coming from.

  9. Yeah, I wondered what this movie would have been like if it were a little more in the “King of Comedy” realm myself, but I don’t think I would have liked it much. I could easily see something like this becoming fairly heavy-handed or judgemental towards the characters which is why I liked it. But there is the potential for a very interesting film in the right hands. At the very least, I would not be surprised if we see a documentary out next year on these Real Doll things that are featured in the movie…that whole subculture is ripe for the Sundance doc entry.

    Lars walks something of a fine line. I’m not surprised if people don’t buy into it completely. I am a little surprised if anyone hates it though.

  10. Heh heh…Cronenberg. Well that would’ve been an entirely different animal, wouldn’t it?

    ***Spoilers*** Two things one good one bad. The Good: I was expecting there to be a big dramatic moment when Emily Mortimer has her baby and there are compications…just like when Lars was born…and I was really glad the movie didn’t go there. The Bad: it seemed like the payoff of Lars getting together with Margo came way too quickly and easily. I mean, you knew it was going to happen, but it happened right after the funeral, did it not? ***End Spoilers***

    Once you accept the conceit of how the townspeople handle Lars’ fixation (and I admit it’s not realistic at all, Joel’s comments on the other thread about it being a fable are right on), it’s really fun to watch it play out. The way some of the women are actually a little jealous of how Lars treats Bianca and how she sort of fits in and becomes whatever people want her to be.

    I know, whatever credibility I had as a hard edged cynic is not completely gone. Oh well.

  11. Although some people undoubtedly will not appreciate the premise, I think the director could have done a better job of setting us up for it. The first 15-20 minutes or so might have been shot using different camera techniques or angles.

    Beyond that, I have only a couple minor quibbles and those are with Gosling’s performance which, overall, is excellent. I do feel, though, that he did a little too much (mostly early in the film) with physical business in trying to convey aspects of his character.

    Now that’s out of the way. I loved Lars and the Real Girl. It’s actually quite a sad film. But I didn’t miss out on the light-hearted laughs throughout.

    Nancy Oliver’s screenplay stands out at being able to tell two stories at once — not just the unfolding events but also, in bits and pieces, the sad tribulations of these two brothers, their father, their mother and why we’re seeing what we’re seeing in the present. Oliver did this quite remarkably — oftentimes with very little dialogue or exposition.

    The cast, as well, had a major hand across the board in embodying the story. For the most part, direction served the screenplay very well and — following Oliver’s lead — was skillfully understated.

    I give the film an A-.

  12. I think I see what you’re saying about Gosling Pierre, but overall I found him surprisingly restrained. He’s an actor who has caught my attention, but for me the jury is still out on him. This performance brings me one step closer to feeling he’s the real deal.

    And I think the binary paths you refer to, the funny and the sad, has split some audiences who aren’t sure what to take from it, not realizing that you can have both. I found it to be a touching and funny story with hopeful overtones.

  13. I think Gosling is a very mature actor for his age but that he still has some honing to do. These are not big things. And even the little things happened only briefly, 2 or 3 times. If he can keep himself from being calculated — and I think he probably can — Gosling has great things ahead for him as an actor.

    It’s interesting to compare this film to something like “Affliction,” for example, with the darkness of those flashbacks and scary James Coburn. “Lars” I think accomplished so much more by not even putting that stuff on the screen, yet the writing (and acting) provides just as rich a history for the viewer, one that resonates yet plays off the moments of humor and lightness. The irony and resultant gravitas brings this film into the area of greatness. Yes — it’s one of the quietest “great” movies I’ve seen in a long time.

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