[26 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (dir. Craig Gillespie)
Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive, there is still a part of our inherent human make up that hates to see people alone. From the meddling matchmaking imported from many an immigrant’s old country culture to the current computerized claims of electronic harmony, we function under the foolish belief that individuals aren’t complete until they’re paired up and procreating. Equally disturbing is how readily we dismiss someone’s personal preference, no matter how unusual or outside the considered norm. While some affections can’t be supported, others offer nothing more than shelter from the social storm. Lars Lindstrum suffers from such well-meaning misconstructions. His brother and sister-in-law just want him to be happy. But finding said bliss with a life-size sex aide is another issue all together.
Avoiding cliché while exploiting the obvious comic possibilities of a man’s obsession with a ‘anatomically correct’ love doll, Lars and the Real Girl is a satiric, sentimental jewel. Directed with heart and humor by newcomer Craig Gillespie (whose efforts here feel a billion miles away from his sloppy summer dud Mr. Woodcock), we get an amazing performance from Ryan Gosling, a weirdly evocative narrative that never once strays into sleaze, and a thematic resonance that requires us to look at love through the eyes of the person, not public perception. Our hero is a 27-year-old manchild who lives in the garage of his parent’s old house. Mother long dead and father recently passed, it is up to his older brother Gus to look after him. Taking up residence in the family home, he’s about to be a proud papa. Yet his very pregnant wife Karin can’t help but worry about Lars. He seems lonely without being obvious about it, shy both at work and in the rare occasions he ventures out into the world.
One day, a large crate shows up in the driveway. It’s Bianca, a human-sized figurine typically used by men to satisfy a certain, partner-less, urge. But Lars is not interested in his newfound companion’s carnal capabilities. Instead, he seems to think she’s alive, interacting with her and requesting that others treat her with the same respect they would others in the community. Initially confused, Gus and Karin seek the advice of local doctor and resident psychologist Dagmar. Using the ploy that Bianca needs special medical treatments (she’s from Brazil, after all), our medico starts to slowly unravel Lars’ delusion. Hoping to break his bond with the oversized toy, she suggests everyone treat the doll as a real person. Soon, the whole town is taken with Bianca, and Lars shifts from happy to slightly confused. It’s not just the love they are showing for his gal pal. It’s the emotional outpouring focused toward him as well.
Like the best kind of movies, Lars and the Real Girl effortlessly moves from hilarious to earnest without us really knowing it. We giggle at Gosling, all goofball mannerisms and awkward personal tics, as he projects his naïve romantic feelings on his plastic paramour, and nod knowingly as Patricia Clarkson’s patient shrink gets to the bottom of many of his deep rooted problems. Like Ordinary People populated by eccentrics, this is really a film about discovering one’s inner strength, and understanding the need for human companionship. Lars’ belligerent brother (a nice turn by the seemingly omnipresent Paul Schnieder) just wants a pill to turn his relative back to normal. But it is he who has one of the story’s biggest epiphanies, realizing the role he played in sequestering his sibling. Wife Karin (a lovely Emily Mortimer) sees things more simply. Whatever makes Lars happy is what’s best. Of course, it would be nice if it weren’t inanimate and shrouded in smut.
As with most surreal stories like this, the background is populated with dozens of idiosyncratic individuals, from the local hairdresser who wants to give Bianca a makeover, to the matronly know-it-all who calls out the populace when they initially want to reject Lars and his new companion. This mother figure also plays a prominent role in the film’s last act, helping everyone deal with a sudden, sad change in events. Perhaps most important, there is an actual human being who cares for Lars, a genial if slightly silly girl named Margo. As played by Kelli Garner in a completely unglamorous turn, we see the decency and concern the character carries. While she’s a natural match for our addled adult, how they get together—IF they do - becomes one of the movie’s more endearing elements.
In fact, this whole film is like a massive down comforter fresh from the drier and fluffy as a cuddly kitten. Golsing may be pitching his performance a tad too far over into introvert mode, but he’s a solid, stoic figure, a man made up of several psychological missteps—so many, in fact, that Gillespie wisely concentrates on a chosen few. Clearly, Lars is devastated from the loss of his mother (who died giving birth to him) and the accompanying fade of his father. Gus was a cold caretaker at best, and the resulting distance has become a chasm. Fears revolving abandonment, childbirth, the responsibilities of being alone, and the overreaching pressure to play nice in the world of adults are constantly projected on Bianca, Lars’ imaginary conversations saying more than any direct confrontation. The town’s reaction to his several thousand dollar therapy device is just the icing on an already sweet and satisfying cake.
Clarkson’s role here is also unique. Unlike your typical psychologist that probes and prods, her character’s style is subtle and very effective. The talks she has with Lars are more about filling in the blanks the overgrown boy leaves when discussing subjects than prying information out of him. There is a real sense of compassion voiced, something that gives the film a genial yet genuine gravitas. She wants her patient to open up, but not at the expense of what makes him so special. It’s a shame that all therapy can’t be this successful. As stated before, the premise initially plays as wildly incongruous and slightly slapstick. It’s a dude dating a sex toy, after all. But as Lars and the Real Girl progresses, we find ourselves celebrating right along with the rest of the town. They really do love this strangely iconic figure—and so do we.
It’s a shame then that this loveable little sleeper won’t be experienced by more people. Even with the name change (the female figure is sold under the trademarked ‘RealDoll’ label), there will be those who see an adult novelty sitting aside a grown man and assume this is some scandalous sex farce. Others will be disappointed when they learn that there is very little controversy involved. Recently, North One Television in Britain aired a documentary about four men who all have what they consider to be legitimate relationships with their own versions of Lars’ love interest. It was a creepy, and ultimately depressing exposé. Craig Gillespie has managed to avoid any and all inappropriateness to deliver one of 2007’s most endearing films. Lars and the Real Girl is a real gem.