LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
First off, allow me to confirm that it's simply amazing that this film was directed by the same Craig Gillespie behind the recent Billy Bob Thornton 'comedy' quagmire Mr. Woodcock. To be fair, the biggest problems inherent in that production were rooted in the lackluster script, but there was also no evidence of any particular flair or style from the captain of that sinking ship either.
So just as weird as the subject matter contained within this film, Gillespie returns from the floor with a knockout dramedy entitled Lars and the Real Girl. Ryan Gosling delivers a stunning performance as the antisocial Lars Lindstrom, a twitchy Ned Flanders clone who is one of many Danish descendents holed up in the cold, snowy wonderland of rural Wisconsin. Lars lives in a converted garage, spending most of his spare time doing, well, nothing.
During the day he works as a cubicle drone, doing his best to get through the day with as little human contact as possible (touching literally burns him, or so he says). His desk mate is an irritating nerd who collects action figures and porn, but worse yet is fellow office worker Margo (Kelli Garner), a cute young available woman who repeatedly assaults Lars' emotional wall to no avail. Still, she always comes back smiling. When a kind woman at church gives Lars a flower with the intent that he give it to a nice girl, he turns to find Margo beaming at him doe-eyed with anticipation. Lars simply hurls the carnation as far as possible.
His neighbor Karin (Emily Mortimer) also flies in the face of futility through unending attempts to lure Lars into her and her husband's home for numerous breakfasts and dinners. I loved how the film initially plays them off as strangers, only to slowly reveal that they have more of a connection with Lars than previously thought. One particular scene in which Lars is stuck at the dinner table with Karin' s husband Gus (Paul Schneider) is fantastic you think it's an awkward moment between two people who barely like or know one another, until the script (by Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver) pulls the rug out from under you by unveiling the fact that they're actually brothers!
Lars is an interesting character in that he doesn't immediately fit into one particular stereotype he's not technically a shut-in since he goes to work every day and attends church regularly. He isn't spending his nights yanking it to online porn. In fact he's a strangely asexual being. All the more confusing when he suddenly orders an adult sex toy after hearing his coworker rave about them. And not just any sex toy, it's a Real Doll.
For the uninitiated, the Real Doll is a quantum leap forward in sex toy engineering it's the next evolutionary stage from the traditional blow up doll. It's fabricated to be as realistic as possible, so much so that they're pretty creepy to look at kind of like a corpse with a gaping, ruddy mouth. This realism also means that they're very, very expensive but for a guy like Lars who does nothing with his income, why not?
Thus begins the primary gag in the film (as referenced by the title) Lars suddenly (and proudly) shows up everywhere sporting his new girlfriend Bianca'. Bianca the Real Doll. Instead of hiding out in his garage for sessions of factory-intended sexual experimentation, he looks at this doll with entirely different eyes he sees it as a tried and true girlfriend, one which he requests stay at Gus and Karin's house so that the new lovers can continue dating without the impurity of sharing a residence in sin.
Needless to say, the rest of the world is slightly taken aback by Lars' delusion, leading them to confer with Patricia Clarkson's town doctor Dagmar (this far north, family doctors must also be psychiatrists, or so it is said). Her advice is to let him work through whatever it is that he's experiencing, and to simply play along. Karin is okay with this prescription, but Gus is tormented by it, mainly because he now realizes how much hurt his brother is truly in. Nonetheless, by Lars' open embrace of something he should probably be embarrassed by, he gains an element of social power that has eluded him until now. He would never attend a coworker's party as a young single guy, but he has no problem doing it as a young crazy guy in tow with a sex toy.
You'll need to take what happens next with a grain of salt, for the entire town is relatively open to accepting this new arrival into their flock even the crusty members of the church administration. Soon enough, people are requesting that Bianca (a wheelchair bound girl who happens to be half Danish and half Brazilian!) volunteer some of her spare time helping the community. However, the absurdity of this scenario is ably balanced by the film's ample amount of heart.
It's a cute predicament, but all of the comedy inherent in Lars' misfit status becomes much more poignant once we learn about his past and that he's compensating for deep, deep emotional trauma and searing wounds to his psyche. Lars' conversations with his lifeless companion eventually evolve into arguments, and he accuses others of monopolizing his alone time with his 'girlfriend'. These character moments are very well written, and as weird as some of this gets, he never turns into a jerk or someone who we lose sympathy for.
It's also interesting how Bianca becomes a character despite her lack of humanity. She arrives dressed as a fish-net stockinged trollop, yet undergoes a transformation throughout the rest of the film. Her wardrobe changes, her erotic mouth closes tighter, her makeup less tawdry. At one point in which she is supposedly 'sick', she even appears to have a deathly pallor to her face.
For a one-joke film, it's a very good one, and knows how to evolve the situation and ferret out some very real issues at its core. Lars is a fascinating character, as just about everyone finds out, and in particular his relationship with his brother's family is rich material. Lars begins questioning what it means to be a 'man', but unfortunately finds himself trapped once he begins experiencing feelings for real' people now that he's tied to this totem of his insecurity.
I was also struck by the inherent similarities to Fight Club (possible spoilers for that film follow), mainly that a character is so damaged and unable to connect with other human beings that he uses 'insanity' as a coping mechanism as a way to work through his demons and arrive at a healthier destination many other people would take for granted.The finale again requires a little stretch of the imagination, but I found it to work rather well. It's a feel good film that thankfully doesn't flinch when it comes to its characters' sorrows. There's a lot of sweetness to it, and it may come as a surprise to find something about a lifeless idol to be so touching in the long run. See it alone for Gosling's bravura performance. As for Bianca, her career is also definitely going places.