film reporter

SKE mulls exactly how to doll up 'Lars' rollout

How do you market a wholesome, old-fashioned film about a churchgoer who falls in love with his sex doll? Grass-roots 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 at first glance seems like "Harvey" in heat, 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 and convinces himself that she's his girlfriend. The local doctor (Patricia Clarkson) persuades his family, his small town and his church to help him by going along with the delusion and accept Bianca as a real person.

After Gillespie, a former commercials 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 brothers-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.

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 "smart house" audience, a term he picked up from Focus Features' Jack Foley this year for filmgoers with a mix of art house and commercial tastes. "Lars" bows Friday in Los Angeles and New York, 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," Ray says. "Some pastors may discuss the film as part of their sermons."

There's nothing really prurient in the film, which earned a PG-13 for "some sex-related content." Lars and Bianca sleep in separate houses. There's a scene in which 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 it does feature Bianca in ridiculous situations (holding a baby, sitting in church), making it tough to convey the themes of acceptance, tolerance and kindness.

"It's a hurdle we're trying to work with," Gillespie says. "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."

Gillespie has reasons to be nervous. His feature debut, "Mr. Woodcock," was passed to 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 says. "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."

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.