Review: Lars and the Real Girl (2007) **** 1/2

Lars and the Real Girl

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)

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9 thoughts on “Review: Lars and the Real Girl (2007) **** 1/2

  1. Thanks for the positive review. I really want to like this film and your comments are encouraging. I’ve seen the TV promo and it seems to strike the right tone in that it makes the feel seem appealing. If enough people respond to the promo and make it to theaters, that’s half the battle. And if the film is as good as I hope, audiences will leave satisfied.

    Perhaps one of the big reasons why the film succeeds despite all the potential pitfalls is that the screenplay was written by a woman — not just any woman but one with sensitivity and skill. Without that to start with, the actors would have been handicapped.

    If enough money is invested in promoting this thing, it could get the attention it appears to deserve.

  2. Word of mouth is going to be hard. I’ve already tried to convince a couple of mainstream movie goers and I got ‘the look’. Like “what kind of crap are you trying to talk me into now Craig?”

    I’m sure also cynics will find reasons not to like it just like they did with Little Miss Sunshine. So be it.

  3. I didn’t much care for Little Miss Sunshine myself, thought I think my dislike was born less out of cynicism* and more out of a bad, everything for all people faux-profound, cutesy cutes storytelling. I have to admit that I assumed the same of Lars, but your review has gotten me curious, I’ll check it out when I get the chance.

    *though, I have been accused more than once of crusty cynicism, the most recent example being a friend’s wife nonchalantly advising someone that I “don’t do happy endings”.

  4. From one cynic to another, believe me I understand. However, I’m a cynic with soft spots that get bigger the older I get and when a movie hits one, I tend to overlook obvious flaws. Exhibit A: LMS. Guilty as charged.

    It’s the reason I worry about my review of Lars. I haven’t heard anyone else’s opinion and I hope it didn’t just hit my soft spot. For the reasons I tried to express, I really think it’s better than LMS…much less contrived and manipulative, but I anxiously await getting egg on my face.

  5. I have been looking forward to this film for some time. But knew there was a good chance that the balance between quirkiness and pathos suggested by the trailer could easily falter when played out in a full length feature. The fear was heightened by Manohla’s NY times review. But this informative, without much reference to plot, and deceptively well crafted review has connected me again with my earlier enthusiasm.

    What it so lucidly conveys is exactly the quality of simultaneously amusing/poignant tone it evoked for you, and which the filmmakers clearly aspired to. I now know that if the film works in the same way for me I have a real treat coming up.

    LMS didn’t really work for me. Like Chuck it wasn’t the fact of the genre, but of its questionable craft.

    What happened to the Farrelly brothers? Something About Mary was like the Citizen Kane of the crass humor genre, and Kingpin though uneven was also very amusing. But since, their efforts are indistinguishable from all the other crass dross trying to replicate SaM’s artistic and commercial success.

  6. Sartre, Interesting you bring up Manohla, as her comments are a part of my most recent post. She was not kind to Lars at all and generally I really like her stuff.

    You’ll be an interesting test case for Lars since, like Chuck, you were unconvinced by LMS. My point with LMS was that if a movie is working for me on a certain level, I tend to be very forgiving of weakness, but if the movie isn’t grabbing me, I can be a harsh bastard.

    In time we’ll see if I liked Lars because I was blinded by its charms or if there really is a there there.

  7. wait a second…he doesn’t have sex with the doll.

    *sigh* i don’t have to go to movies to see someone not have sex. *sigh* 😦

  8. I think Lars and the Real Girl works best if you view it as something of a modern fairy tale, somewhat akin to an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Edward Scissorhands. This isn’t to say that it is necessarily as inventively original in concept as either of those movies but the plot hangs on some absurd plot twists that work in the fairy tale sense but the movie really is held together by very strong central performances and a self-assured love for it’s own characters.

    It’s rare for me to sit through a movie and be taken in by the characters to such an extent that I ignore (and ultimately am not bothered by) what might be seen as contrivances or plot holes in another film. Lars simply worked for me. I enjoyed it and continued to even after I thought it over some after the fact.

    And like those previously mentioned films, this one will likely get completely ignored come awards time. That’s too bad, because Ryan Gosling and the supporting cast deserve credit for the quality of their work.

    I can see why some critics completely didn’t like it and others did. It’s a movie you’re either willing to give a chance and work on you or you’re just going to dismiss it out of hand.

    I think Mahnola missed the boat on this one. Roeper is just an annoying dick.

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