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Lars and the Real Girl (2007) -vs- Half Nelson (2006)

Randal CohenThe Smackdown

Movie afficionados already know what the public at large has yet to discover: Ryan Gosling is one of the great actors of his twentysomething generation and, like those who have come before him, he’s done it by taking chances. In his latest role in the quirky “Lars and the Real Girl,” he plays a sweet but delusional, asocial small town office worker.

Just last year, Gosling was Oscar nominated for his role as a drug-addicted school teacher in “Half Nelson.” Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that you’ve got one Gosling performance in your budget. (And, in this argument, you don’t get to pick “The Notebook,” okay?) Which indie scores the most points?

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The Challenger

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) lives in the garage behind the family home occupied by his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Always shy, Lars has become increasingly withdrawn much to Karin’s concern.  He ignores the attentions of adorable co-worker  Margo (Kelli Garner).  He has no social life and only ventures out of his room to go to work and church until he suddenly informs Karin and Gus that he will be joining them for dinner with his new girlfriend.  That’s where “Lars and the Real Girl” kicks in with its magic. Gus and Karin’s shock and delight turns to shock and distress when they meet Bianca. They’re not discriminating because she’s wheelchair-bound, mind you, but there is the small matter that she is also a full-size, anatomically accurate, mail-order sex doll. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… The film takes that premise and runs with it. Lars is messed up, to be sure, but the town shrink thinks people should treat Bianca the silicon-girl like she’s the real deal and, as they do, she keeps an even strain, but the townspeople get their own dose of therapy.

The Defending Champion

When “Half Nelson” was released last year,  Gosling’s performance as middle-school teacher Danny put him on the map and earned him a nomination because this well-meaning but troubled teacher also had a pretty substantial drug problem. The film revolves around Danny and one of his pupils, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who is being raised by a single mom who works two jobs.  Although this latch-key kid is surrounded by crime and drugs, you guessed it, she’s the one who has her act together and has more maturity in the unconventional friendship that springs up between the two. The film also tests a less-than-judgmental way of looking at drugs because the users and the dealers in “Half Nelson” aren’t wearing “Just Say No” buttons.

The Scorecard

Both films share the common theme of redemption through friendship. In both movies a lonely and isolated individual is saved by the love of those around him. Directors Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) not only get a great performance from Gosling but also put on screen some uniformly fine performances from the supporting casts.

“Lars and the Real Girl” screenwriter (she worked on “Six Feet Under”) Nancy Oliver’s rich and deep tale of a deluded, lonely young man’s love for a doll is not the sick, dark or funny story the synopsis might lead a viewer to expect. The redemption in this film is the one that comes through the love of friends and neighbors. None of the characters are types; they’re all are well rounded with subtle and surprising depths. Gosling’s portrayal has a truth and beauty that lingers long after the lights go up.

The same can be said about “Half Nelson” which also avoids school-room drama cliches while also sending a message of redemption through social interaction. The prism that it sends that message through, though, as directed by Ryan Fleck from an Anna Boden script he apparently re-wrote, is honest, tough, touching and assured.

In this Gosling versus Gosling Smackdown, however, you have to ask where he did his own best work. As Lars, Gosling gives us a man without guile and nearly total sincerity. As Dan, Gosling gave us a base-head coke abuser who also happens to be an excellent history teacher. The harder role to nail had to be Lars. Just had to be.

The Decision

Brilliantly told and original, with acting and directing that shine,  Lars  just takes you more and more into his world with every frame of film. This Smackdown goes to the movie with the more compelling story, one of the best pictures released in 2007, and that’s “Lars and the Real Girl.”

3 Comments on Lars and the Real Girl (2007) -vs- Half Nelson (2006)

  1. Terrific review — I, too, am a big fan of LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. I’m looking forward to more Smackdowns from you…keep it up!

  2. This review came up at the top of a Google search – took me here – and I was completely unprepared for this site. It’s weird and wonderful. I read five of your reviews before I was done. Each one makes you slap your head and say, yep, those two are a lot a like. Very interesting: can’t wait for Blockbuster to buy you and turn you into something boring.

  3. For whatever reason, I’ve missed both of these films. Just hearing about them, though, makes me think I’d like “Half Nelson” so much more. “Lars” sounds so contrived but clearly isn’t based on your rave. I’ll have to check it out.

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