Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl

I had planned to write about some important differences I noticed in the Beckett on Film version of Krapp’s Last Tape and the play itself, but I finally got around to watching Lars and the Real Girl and I had two thoughts about it: one emotional and one technical.

No Third Acts

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in The Love of the Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” And ever since it has been fashionable for people who don’t know a lick about dramatic structure to say he was wrong. They usually assume it means that people don’t have second careers—that is how simplistic the thinking goes. It is never mentioned that this quotation is not from some party that Fitzgerald attended and thus is his opinion, but from the half-finished first draft of a novel. Should we assume that Melville preferred to be called Ishmael, because that’s what he wrote in Moby Dick? Of course not. And the same logic should be applied to Fitzgerald, especially given that he might have removed the whole line had he lived long enough. (This is highly doubtful; it is a great line.)

There are first acts in our lives: things go wrong. There are second acts, too: things get more and less complicated. There are not third acts in our lives: there is never any resolution. Much of the brilliance of Waiting for Godot is that its structure is life: every day is a minor variation on the day before. There are no conclusions; nothing is ever resolved. In this way, life is one long second act: complication after complication; we do better sometimes and worse others. Even on the most trite level where we try to cram birth, life, and death into the three acts, there are no third acts; birth and death are not acts—they are events. Fitzgerald’s life itself shows this. Yes, he died. But did he have a massive heart attack just as he typed that last period of that last novel? No. He died having almost half his planned chapters undone: 14 out of 31. It was second act all the way up to falling dead off that armchair.There are no third acts in real life.

Which brings us to Lars and the Real Girl. What are we to make of such a movie? The first half of the film is very funny. Nothing can quite compete with a sex doll in a wheelchair, holding a prayer book in the middle of a church. That is effortless comedy. The second half of the film is a tragedy. The film is basically Love Story with a sex doll and a fourth act tacked on to make everything work out. Since I knew this was the course the film would take from the moment the sex doll arrived (the filmmakers had to lay a little—surprisingly little—groundwork for the fourth act to work), I found myself sobbing throughout the second half of the film—certainly as much as I did during Love Story.

Did the happy fourth act ending make me happy? Of course not. It was just a cheap trick, anyway. And if I don’t think there are third acts in real life, I certainly don’t believe in a follow-up. In real life, far from getting the girl, Lars doesn’t even get his sanity back. Some days are better than others—just like it is for the rest of us.

Modern Films Are Too Long

Lars and the Real Girl is typical of modern films. It comes in at about an hour forty-five, and yet has only about an hour’s worth of content. The first act is way too long, the second act barely exists, its third act is interminable, and its fourth act is just silly. It helps that all of these acts were extremely well done: the dialog and scene construction, art direction, lighting, acting, even editing in as much as it was allowed. I’m sure the editor could have made a near perfect film with the material she was given: it just would have been, as usual, about an hour long.

The first thing one learns as a novelist—even a failed one—is that some stories just don’t lend themselves to a novel. A novel requires a lot of material. Well, so does an hour forty-five film. I wish filmmakers would learn that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl

  1. No, I believe Fitzgerald was correct. Lives have a third act. Death is the ultimate resolution. It is the big event that distinguishes the act. In your own words, if you really knew dramatic structure, you would know this?

    If Fitzgerald were alive and fairly sober, do you think you could win this debate with him?

    I truly love it here online when people with pretty thin resumes take on the dead masters. Amazing to read.

  2. RJ Johnson: As I think I made clear in the article, this is not what Fitzgerald thought. It is a quote from a novel. What’s more, I was not arguing with Fitzgerald but those who quote the line. Finally, as I think I made clear in the article, death is not an act: it is an event. A third act creates resolution, it is not the resolution itself. I know a great deal about dramatic structure and your ignorant statement is rude, but hell: welcome to the internet!

    Your argument regarding a hypothetical debate with Fitzgerald is specious. As should be clear from the article, I was not even arguing with Fitzgerald. But even if I had been, you imply that anyone who has created great art is perfect. Such a thought is naive to put it most delicately.

    To paraphrase you: I truly love it here online when people with no (?) resumes comment on articles they either didn’t read or failed to understand. Amazing to read: childish, ignorant, rude.

  3. Update: I’m sorry I took the time to comment on Mr. Johnson’s comment. Having just reread the article here, it is clear that he didn’t even make it through the second paragraph. I really like it when people comment here, but I do wish they would at least read the whole article they are commenting on.

  4. Or he read it and misunderstood completely or skimmed it and didn’t understand what he read I do that from time to time. But I don’t make posts about the article unless I understand what I read.

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