Selling of a sex doll 'Lars' calls his own

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How do you market a wholesome, old-fashioned film about a churchgoer who falls in love with his sex doll? Grassroots screenings with religious groups, maybe?

That's one of the novel approaches producer Sidney Kimmel Entertainment is taking with the campaign for Craig Gillespie's unexpectedly poignant comedy "Lars and the Real Girl." The film, which seems like " 'Harvey' in Heat" at first glance, presents unique challenges for SKE as it launches its distribution deal with MGM.

"Half Nelson" Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a painfully shy loner who lives in the garage next to his brother and sister-in-law's house. Crushed by the loss of his parents, he orders a lifelike doll named Bianca over the Web and convinces himself she's his girlfriend. The local doctor (Patricia Clarkson) persuades his family, his small town and even his church to help him by going along with the delusion and accept Bianca as a real person.

After Gillespie, a former commercial director, spent four years unsuccessfully shopping Nancy Oliver's screenplay to the indies, the project came together in five days. Gillespie arranged an SKE meeting, then sent the script to Gosling on a Friday. He agreed to star Monday, and SKE agreed to produce the $12 million film that Wednesday.

Now comes the hard part. Despite a rapturous reception last month in Toronto, the film must now capture an audience without having them anticipate the Farrelly Bros.-style comedy one might expect from the premise. Even Gillespie wanted to pass when he heard the description. "How can you take that for 90 minutes?" he recalls thinking. But his wife convinced him to read it.

It's the first big test for SKE and an indie film legend, Kimmel Distribution president Bingham Ray. He says the main strategy is good reviews and old-fashioned word of mouth among the "smarthouse" audience, a term he picked up from Focus Features' Jack Foley earlier this year for filmgoers with a mix of arthouse and commercial tastes. "Lars" bows in New York and Los Angeles Friday, the top 10 markets next week and, if all goes well, the top 50 markets by Oct. 26.

SKE plans more than 100 promo screenings by the time the film goes wide including, yes, outreach to church leaders. "We've found an enormous response from mainstream Christian groups," says Ray. "Some pastors may discuss the film as part of their sermons."

There's nothing very prurient in the film, which earned a PG-13 for "some sex-related content." Lars and Bianca sleep in separate houses. There's a discreet bathing scene where Bianca's potential in-laws bathe her, but while some silicone is exposed, her anatomical correctness is never shown.

The trailer doesn't intentionally misrepresent the film's tone, but does feature Bianca in ridiculous situations (holding a baby, sitting in church), making it tough to convey the film's themes of acceptance, tolerance and kindness.

"It's a hurdle we're trying to work with," says Gillespie. "I'm hoping the campaign will put more weight on Ryan's performance and the emotional journey that's happening to his character as it rolls out." Ray says the marketing drive is likely to evolve.

Gillespie has reasons to be nervous. His feature debut, "Mr. Woodcock," was passed to "Wedding Crashers" director David Dobkin after rough test screenings where audiences expected a different tone based on the premise. "The concept of a gym teacher falling in love with his student's mom wasn't suited to mining the damaged relationship between a mother and son and Freudian triangle [issues]," he explains. "A lot of comedies are suited to being dark and subtle, and that was not one of them. I think it was my own undoing." He has no interest in a "Mr. Woodcock" DVD director's cut.

With "Lars," Gillespie made the film he wanted to make with his backers' full support. But whether audiences can or will ignore the sex doll in the room remains to be seen.
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