Over/Under: ‘The Notebook’ vs. ‘Lars and the Real Girl’

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Today is Valentine’s Day, and a big part of what that entails is time spent thinking about the one you adore. And, for me, it means thinking about romantic movies. So what has happened is I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on my current mancrush Ryan Gosling, what films he’s done that explore the concepts of love and romance, and how I feel about each of them. And surprise, surprise, a column idea sprung forth.

Today I’ll be looking at The Notebook, a film that a lot of people respond to very strongly, a film that most every girl you know loves, and a film that’s an instant panty dropper when thrown into casual conversations with hormonal coeds. Also, I’ll be looking at Lars and the Real Girl, a movie that’s well regarded among the people that have seen it, but that was too strange for many moviegoers to take a chance on, or for any mainstream award shows to champion. And also, it’s a movie that can mean instant death if you try to explain it to a girl in a bar.

What do they have in common?

While one of these movies is about Ryan Gosling falling in love with a real girl and the other is about Ryan Gosling falling in love with a life-sized sex doll, they actually have quite a bit in common in how their characters respond to being in love. Both of these guys fall into obsessive, crazy behavior. With Noah in The Notebook it comes in the form of restoring an old plantation house, even though the girl he’s building it for is long gone. For Lars it’s keeping up the delusion that his doll, Bianca, is a real person who he relates to and that he shares a connection with.

And both guys have an inability to let go of the past. That can be seen in Noah when he refuses to let go of his wife, even after his presence and his actions are probably doing her more harm than good, and for Lars in the way he lets a death from his childhood that scarred him deeply color every experience he has and sabotage all of his relationships, be they romantic or platonic. These movies look at the damaging effect love can have when it’s ripped away from someone, and the healing effect it can have when it’s given to someone who’s gone too long without it.

Why is The Notebook overrated?

I think people like the concept of this one more than they do the execution. The premise of a guy writing a letter a day to and building the dream house of a lost love is powerfully sentimental, and sounds like the stuff of an epic romance. But The Notebook is a movie that’s too sprawling and scattershot and too clumsy with its sentiment to hit as hard as it should. The first act of this film feels like the CliffsNotes version of the story, where we’re told by lame narration that these two people have fallen in love and robbed of the experience of watching them actually do the falling. The rest of the movie suffers from this point on, because we haven’t been properly introduced to the kids, we haven’t developed the appropriate attachment, and then we’re immediately asked to start crying over their lives, over and over again.

And, oh boy, are we expected to cry. This movie has so many tear-jerking scenes that it leaves room for little else. This is the sort of film where we’re told the main character is going off to war and then literally ten seconds later we’re right in the middle of the harrowing, best friend getting killed in battle scene. Don’t you think that scene would have been more effective if the closeness of their friendship and the danger of war had been better established? And what’s a big moment like this doing in a movie that should be all about the love story, anyway? Sometimes, when adapting a novel, screenwriters don’t make enough hard choices when it comes to what to leave out. The result here is dialogue that comes off as cheesy and drama that becomes melodramatic, because when a movie is all big stuff and no build, nothing can effectively be big. A movie that’s all screaming, hitting, crying, passionate kissing, and nothing else eventually just becomes suffocating noise that you roll your eyes at instead of a story about real people that gives you a revealing look into your own emotions.

I’ve got problems with everyone in this movie not named Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, or Sam Shepard, as well. I didn’t believe David Thornton as the girl’s stubborn dad at all. He’s all mustache and accent, and the big choices he made with the character take away from the reality of the relationship he has with his daughter. Joan Allen plays the disapproving mother way too frigidly. Her disapproval of the Gosling character is so extreme and total that she becomes a villain in a story that didn’t need one; especially when it’s revealed later on that she related to her daughter’s situation completely. She couldn’t have projected even a little empathy or regret along with all of her scowling? And poor James Garner and Gena Rowlands. They do fine as the elderly couple that bookends the story, but the secret that this movie is hiding sabotages their presence in the film completely. There is a huge disconnect between their looks, personalities, and screen presences and those of Gosling and McAdams, so the tying of these two stories together and the casting of Garner and Rowlands looks more like a cheap trick to fool the audience more than anything else; especially considering the two competing stories aren’t connected by much of a thematic bridge. A film adaptation should have picked one of these couples and focused on them more thoroughly.

Why is Lars and the Real Girl underpraised?

As you might expect from a film about a delusional man who becomes convinced that a love doll is his real, living girlfriend, Lars and the Real Girl is a movie unlike any I’ve seen before. This is a completely unique filmgoing experience that takes any expectations you might have of it and throws them out the window. There is nothing salacious or perverted here at all. In fact, the imagined relationship between Lars and Bianca couldn’t be described as anything other than sweet and charming. And there’s no freak show aspect either. While Lars’ illness is dramatic and rare, his plight is always handled with the most delicate of touches.

For a movie with such an out there premise, Lars and the Real Girls’ best quality is how authentic it is, how real it all feels. From the sets, to the costuming, to the casting, to the way the dialogue is structured, everything we get is crafted to look like a place you’ve been that’s populated with people you’ve met. It’s funny without going for many gags, and it’s emotional without ever becoming cloying. It accomplishes everything it does by creating characters you can relate to, respecting the reality of their situation, and staying true to who they are. All of the sentimentality gets earned because it comes from the characters organically responding to their situations and not from manufactured melodrama. These aren’t actors having big acting moments while music swells in the background, they’re actors living in the skin of their characters the most authentically that they can.

Gosling is some sort of demigod, and watching him play insane is the big attraction of this film. The way he’s able to take such outlandish material and keep it grounded and real, and take such a supremely disturbed character and keep you emotionally invested in him, is astounding. But while he’s the draw of the film, Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer are the foundation that supports it. They aren’t just relegated to side roles. They get to play fully realized, well developed characters, and they’re both so charming and easy to empathize with. They’re great together, talking about how they’re going to handle Lars’ problem, and they’re great interacting with Gosling, clearly freaked out by Lars’ insanity but doing their best to let him know that he isn’t alone. If you want to know the true definition of love, it probably lies somewhere in the relationship between this married couple and the husband’s little brother, and not in any of the romantic pairings of either of these films.

Evening the odds.

Trying to get that person you’ve been digging to watch a movie with you on Valentine’s Day is a nerve-racking endeavor. If you pick the right one you just might score some post-film canoodling, but pick the wrong one and you’ll kill the mood completely. Watching something with Ryan Gosling is probably a good strategy, but which of these films should you pick? The Notebook is a rock, it’s always going to get the job done, and it’s an easy movie to convince someone to watch with you. But it’s also an obvious choice. Will that special someone think that you have no imagination or that you’re just trying to pick them up with easy lines if you go this route?

With Lars and the Real Girl you run the risk of turning someone off if you try to get them to watch it and they’re horrified by the subject matter. But if they agree to give it a chance they’re pretty much guaranteed to walk away from the film feeling all sentimental and romantic. And won’t you look interesting and hip for opening their eyes to something weird and wonderful that they didn’t know about? Whichever way you go, I wish you all the best of luck. Just make sure to thank the Almighty Gosling if you manage to score.

Give your brain some love – read more Over/Under

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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