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‘Devil’ Worship

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Josh Hartnett in 30 Days of Night.  

The deadpan comedy Lars and the Real Girl—the tale of an emotionally backward man (Ryan Gosling) and the sex doll he believes to be alive—is often howlingly funny, and the actors are a treat. But the underlying message is so suspect that it’s hard to suspend disbelief. I promise I tried. The film is a cross between that old chestnut Harvey, in which Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart at his most dithering) pals around with an invisible six-foot rabbit but is otherwise sane and lovable, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which suggests that a man can go dateless for a quarter-century beyond puberty and still be basically healthy and sweet and harbor no resentment toward women. If only. Here, the idea is that, given his emotional baggage, Lars’s delusional relationship with Bianca, the life-size, anatomically correct doll, is profoundly adaptive. Odd, yes. Disturbing, yes. But on some Eriksonian level, healthy—a vital stage on the way to autonomy. If only. If only.

Gosling has grown a mustache and pudged up for the role, and when he lowers his chin and gives a fatuous little grin, his pink cheeks bulge adorably. I think he neuters himself, but I kept watching him; his timing is gorgeous, and he’s obviously invested in this cretin. When Lars sits on a sofa opposite his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), he’s beaming with joy. They wanted him to bring home a girl, and here she is! Mortimer is a miraculously tender comedian. Watch her face (which flushes easily) go from alarmed to empathetic to teary-sentimental to alarmed again—in one fluid movement. Watch Schneider go from alarmed to very alarmed to very, very, very alarmed without changing his expression. (He looks as if his head is about to explode.) The most remarkable performance comes from Patricia Clarkson as Dr. Dagmar, the general practitioner who helps to sustain Lars’s delusion—she plays it utterly low-key and straight, which in context is startling. Lars’s mother died in childbirth, and his sister-in-law, on whom he’s subtly dependent, is pregnant. The shrinks in Marnie and Equus would try to dredge up the repressed horror and expose the life-lie. But Dagmar convinces Lars’s family and co-workers to pretend that Bianca is real, too, and let the relationship take its natural course—which of course it does. If only. If only. If only.

Given its one-joke premise, Lars and the Real Girl goes on too long and repeats itself too often, but the writer, Nancy Oliver, and director, Craig Gillespie, are increasingly inventive in their use of Bianca—who “takes a job” and “reads” to children and gradually wins our affection. She has downcast eyes and a wide mouth made for blow jobs but with just the right hint of melancholy. I wish I could have pushed out of my mind all those horror movies in which delusional schizophrenics develop symbiotic relationships with inanimate objects and end up butchering the supporting cast. If you think you can, by all means see the movie. It’s a good thing for each of us, as movie lovers, to draw our own line between healthy and unhealthy fantasy.

Are vampires a healthy or unhealthy fantasy? I go back and forth but was eager to see 30 Days of Night, based on a graphic novel about bloodsuckers (or, more precisely, throat-rippers) that arrive in Barrow, the northernmost Alaskan town, after its last sunset for a month. Not to get all Hannibal Lecter, but there’s something about blood glowing black on white snow in the moonlight … The director is David Slade, who made the amusingly perverse two-character pedophile psychodrama Hard Candy, and who works here mostly in fast, tight close-ups broken by showers of gore. The vampires are big Slavic rats that howl and shriek and tear out jugulars with their long talons. I like my vampires less feral, but Danny Huston is screamingly funny as the alternately finicky and savage Head Ghoul—he’s like something spewed forth from the bowels of the Politburo. The problem is structural. After the invasion, we’re marooned with the dull survivors (led by Sheriff Josh Hartnett) in an attic for long stretches while the titles read “Day 17” … “Day 21” … The vampires, meanwhile, mill around doing … It’s never clear. They act like beach-house renters with lousy weather who won’t leave until 11 a.m. Saturday no matter how bored they get. Moviegoers who’ve paid $11 will probably stay in their seats for the same reason.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Thinkfilm. R.

Lars and the Real Girl
Directed by Craig Gillespie. MGM. PG-13.

30 Days of Night
Directed by David Slade. Sony Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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