Lars (Ryan Gosling) is something of an introvert. He’s not quite a shut-in, he manages to hold a regular job, but you could imagine him going in that direction. He ignores a new co-worker who clearly has a crush on him and he won’t even agree to repeated invitations to breakfast or dinner from his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) or Gus’ wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Karin is a hugger and Lars bristles at the prospect of physical or emotional contact.
Gus and Karin are naturally surprised and delighted then when Lars announces that he has met a girl on the internet and he’s bringing her over for dinner. Their delight turns to horror when they discover the girl is actually made of silicone and was purchased on the internet for $6500. Her name is Bianca and she’s an anatomically correct, mail order sex doll.
Straddling an uncomfortable line between absurdity and sentimentality, there are about a hundred ways a movie like Lars and the Real Girl could go horribly wrong. For one, it could’ve been a crass, Farrelly-style, one joke movie, mining uncomfortable laughs from the town weirdo and dishing out a last minute helping of sentiment to make it all seem ok. Or it could’ve easily turned into yet another too-quirky-for-its-own-good indie comedy/drama, nothing more than an episode of Northern Exposure played out on the big screen, full of backwoods yokels and societal rejects who all learn to embrace one another’s oddities in time for the end credits to roll.
Somehow however, Lars and the Real Girl manages to avoid both pitfalls. Written by Nancy Oliver, best known for her work on HBO’s Six Feet Under, this is a sweet natured story of a man dealing with some very real problems in a very unusual way. Think of it as an unconventional romance in the mold of Harold and Maude. In the same way that the Hal Ashby cult favorite was about more than a young man having sex with an old woman, Lars and the Real Girl is about more than the union between a man and his life sized Barbie. The truth is, Lars never actually has sex with Bianca. They don’t even sleep in the same bed. Despite his numerous odd behaviors, it turns out Lars is still an old-fashioned guy.
So, how is this movie not creepy and weird? One of the primary pleasures of the movie is finding out just how. Watching it unfold in unexpected ways is a lot of the fun so I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. You’ll probably be able to see the resolution coming a mile away, but the path it takes getting there felt fresh and surprising. It also neatly avoids a couple of big story clichés I thought it was headed for that would’ve made it a lesser movie.
Most importantly, the story doesn’t seem calculated to push your emotional buttons. Your buttons will be pushed, but it’s not contrived. It just develops logically and organically, never feeling manipulative yet delivering plenty of heart and humor.
Helping to ground things is a terrific performance by Ryan Gosling. Lars is definitely strange, but this isn’t Rain Man and Gosling manages to keep the tics and mannerisms to a minimum while still conveying the utter discomfort Lars feels when confronted by daily life.
Patricia Clarkson is typically great as the down-to-earth, common sense doctor who counsels Gus and Karin to allow Lars his fantasy and see where it takes him.
Paul Schneider, most recently a standout in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, does a nice job as the skeptical, but well-meaning brother who’s got some guilt issues of own.
Emily Mortimer is funny as the sister-in-law who will do anything to help Lars whether Lars likes it or not. She has one of the best scenes arguing with Lars about how much everyone cares about him.
Finally, Kelli Garner rounds out the cast as the sweet and awkward co-worker who harbors a crush on Lars. There is a running bit of business between her, Lars’ cubicle mate and a teddy bear that has a terrific payoff.
The audience I saw it with laughed consistently, though there was an elderly lady next to me who cried through most of the second half of the picture. She kept turning to her husband, wondering why people were laughing at such a sad story. To her, Lars’ delusions were unbearably painful and she couldn’t see the inherent humor in the set up. She didn’t see that the audience wasn’t so much laughing at Lars as they were the strange situation. On the other hand, I think the lady keyed in on some of the pathos that appeared to be lost on the larger audience. The real beauty of the film, I think, lies somewhere between the humor and the pain; a little bit like real life.
For better or for worse, Lars and the Real Girl is probably going to get lumped in with other quirky indie films about misfits in the Little Miss Sunshine mold, but I think it’s altogether less manipulative than that. In the end, Lars isn’t really about a sex doll. It’s about people trying to make their way in the world; it’s about people trying to find happiness and it’s about the power of love and acceptance to heal the wounds that are inflicted in the course of living our lives.
Lars and the Real Girl. USA 2007. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Nancy Oliver. Cinematography by Sidney Kimmel. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson and Kelli Garner. 1 hour 46 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sex-related content. 4.5 stars (out of 5)