Hit or miss? Yes

Hollywood Cinderella stories are a little more complicated today than they used to be. Just ask Craig Gillespie. After spending years in obscurity making commercials for everyone from H&R; Block to Holiday Inn Express, the 40-year-old filmmaker is suddenly a hot item, having directed "Lars and the Real Girl," a delightful romantic fable that comes out in limited release Oct. 12. It has already racked up glowing reviews, a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival and raves for Ryan Gosling's sweetly seductive performance as Lars, a painfully shy office worker who falls for a life-size silicone doll he ordered on the Internet.

If anyone knows how fine the line is between having a movie go wonderfully right or horribly wrong, it would be Gillespie, a low-key Australian expatriate who jokes that the biggest leap when making the transition from ads to movies was shooting scenes that lasted three minutes instead of 30 seconds. "I never had three minutes to play with before," he said over lunch the other day. "In commercials, you never even have time to pan the camera."

So what's the horribly wrong part? Gillespie's real debut isn't "Lars and the Real Girl," but "Mr. Woodcock," the long-delayed Billy Bob Thornton clinker about a gym teacher from hell that opened to dismal reviews three weeks ago. Gillespie had left the project after several poor test screenings, replaced by David Dobkin (of "Wedding Crashers" fame), who shot several weeks of new, more broadly comic footage.

For some, the fact that Gillespie is batting only .500 as a new filmmaker may make him less of a wonder. But to me, it makes him an even more interesting story. Filmmaking is a complicated, often mystifying art in which even the most gifted artists find themselves soaring into the stratosphere one moment, spiraling down in flames the next.

Greg Mottola was in director's jail after being axed from 2003's "Duplex" when the film was in pre-production; today he's at the top of everyone's comedy director list, thanks to the runaway success of "Superbad." Now that Peter Jackson is a cinema god, it's easy to forget that after earning kudos for 1994's critically lauded "Heavenly Creatures," he had a disastrous flop the next time out with "The Frighteners."

What is it that makes one movie work and another fall flat with the same person at the helm? I wish I could say it's all in the script -- and I'm happy to heap praise on Nancy Oliver, the "Six Feet Under" writer who created "Lars' " strikingly original characters. But writers blow just as hot and cold as filmmakers.

Gillespie's experience is also different in the sense that his gem arrives almost immediately after his dud. When you think of Hollywood ups and downs, the progression is usually the other way around, from hero to zero, whether it's Paul Haggis going from winning an Oscar for 2004's "Crash" to having his TV drama "The Black Donnellys" abruptly canceled, or Oliver Hirschbiegel following up his masterful German drama "Downfall" with the widely panned Nicole Kidman thriller "The Invasion." One of the few young filmmakers to go directly from the outhouse to the penthouse was M. Night Shyamalan, who triumphed with "The Sixth Sense" a year after Miramax buried his 1998 feature "Wide Awake."

It would be easy to blame the failure of "Mr. Woodcock" on its studio, New Line Cinema, which has been on a cold streak lately. But New Line executives insist that they made it clear to Gillespie from the start that he was hired to make a mainstream comedy, not something with the acerbic tone of an Alexander Payne film.

Gillespie, who came to the United States in 1986 to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York, contends that he was straight with the studio from the start. "I really felt in my gut that the audience would respond to the dark humor, since it was the kind of humor I'd had success doing in my commercials," he says. "I liked the unforgivable or at least unapologetic quality of Billy Bob's character. Mr. Woodcock is a kind of politically incorrect character that we don't often see in today's culture."

But after spending 15 years in advertising, where filmmakers have a lot of people to please, Gillespie knew when to cut his losses. "It was really an eye-opener when we had our first test screening," he recalls. "I realized this is not what the audience wants. They loved the concept -- the gym teacher from hell is dating your mother -- but it was obvious the audience wanted a broader comedy, not the one I'd made. I appreciated the predicament New Line was in, so I stepped aside. It was very civilized -- there was no animosity or hard feelings."

The most striking difference between Gillespie's two films is that although "Mr. Woodcock" is wildly uneven, "Lars and the Real Girl" has a sure-footed consistency of tone and a big-hearted sense of how a community, rallying around a troubled soul, can help him triumph over adversity. Set in a small town in the upper Midwest, the film captures an American generosity of spirit rarely seen in movies today. Eccentric and endearing without a whiff of mawkish sentiment, "Lars" moved Variety to describe its tone as "like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's 'Lake Wobegon' tales."

Knowing the film needed special handling, its producers took the script to Sidney Kimmel, whose company has helped finance films as varied as "United 93," "Talk to Me" and the upcoming "The Kite Runner." Kimmel's production chief, Bill Horberg, loved the story and was impressed by Gillespie's take on the story. "Craig was very respectful about the fragile tone of the movie," Horberg recalls. "He understood the emotion in the story -- that it has a big sense of community and idealism -- but he wanted to play it very real."

Horberg laughs. "It also helped that we both agreed that Ryan Gosling was the right actor for the part." Gosling read the script over a weekend and committed instantly. In the film, Gosling's character lives in a garage apartment in his brother and sister-in-law's backyard. When shooting began, Gosling moved in, sleeping there during the first weeks of filming.

"Ryan became Lars," Gillespie says. "He wants to live and breathe the person he plays. There were scenes where no one really knew what he would do or what would happen. Once he's in character, he's totally unpredictable."

Even though his best-known work was 30-second TV spots, Gillespie (and Oliver's script) attracted some formidable talent -- in addition to Gosling, the film's cast includes Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson. "I think the actors could see pretty quickly that I wasn't pushing them in the wrong direction," Gillespie says. "Every morning we spent a lot of time rehearsing before we'd start shooting, so there was a lot of time for everyone to throw out ideas. If you give actors room, it's pretty liberating for them."

Gillespie admits that he was a different, less controlling filmmaker on "Lars," having learned to loosen up. "I came onto 'Woodcock' thinking that, as a first-time director, I have to have all the answers," he explains. "I felt I had to be very opinionated about where every scene was going or it would be seen as a sign of weakness, which was probably a mistake."

On "Lars," he was more collaborative. "Filmmaking is not an individual sport," he says. "It's really crucial to trust your actors. As Woody Allen once said, 'The actors make all these great choices and the director ends up getting all the credit for it.' "

It will be a formidable challenge getting audiences to see "Lars." Like so many character-driven comedies of the 1970s, it has a free-spirited feel that doesn't lend itself to a typical Hollywood hard-sell marketing campaign. But this time, the audience is in Gillespie's corner. At one "Lars" test screening, a focus group member asked, "I liked the movie, but what do you call it -- a comedy or a drama? I can't tell."

"Right away, a guy across the room yelled back, 'It's called life,' " Gillespie recalls. "I couldn't have given a better answer myself. We were trying to do a movie that felt real."

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The Big Picture runs Tuesdays. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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