by Mel Valentin
Imagine if someone, a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance, invited you to see a film about a shy, reclusive man who orders a “real doll,” a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll and once she arrives in a wooden, coffin-sized box, treats her as if she’s a living, breathing woman, up to and including bringing her around with him to social functions. You’d think the premise weird, odd, strange, disturbed, or even disturbing. What probably wouldn’t cross your mind is that this particular story could be affecting, poignant, and ultimately, life-affirming. Well, it is. Directed by Craig Gillespie ("Mr. Woodcock") and written by Nancy Oliver (a staff writer on "Six Feet Under"), "Lars and the Real Girl" is everything the tagline, “The search for true love begins outside the box,” promises and more.Painfully shy and introspective, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) lives a quiet life. While his shyness and self-imposed isolation aren’t barriers to holding down a full-time job, they impede every other social interaction. Margo (Kelli Garner), one of Lars’ co-workers, expresses interest in him, but he’s turned so far inward that he doesn’t or can’t even notice. What passes for Lars’ personal life involves work, church, and avoiding his pregnant sister-in-law Karin’s (Emily Mortimer) concerns about his mental and emotional well-being. Karin is hard to avoid, though, as Lars lives in the renovated garage/cottage behind the house he inherited with his brother and Karin’s husband, Gus (Paul Schneider), from his late father.
"A wry, whimsical, ultimately uplifiting fable."
When, after a co-worker introduces him to the “real doll” website, Lars orders one for himself, his brother and sister are stunned into silence when Lars introduces her as his new girlfriend, Bianca. Lars concocts a semi-plausible backstory about Bianca, how she can’t walk, and thus needs a wheelchair, how she lost her luggage at the airport, and thus needs to borrow Karin’s clothes, and how, due to her chaste nature, can’t sleep with Lars, so she’s given the spare bedroom.
Relying on a gentle ruse concerning Bianca’s frail health, Karin and Gus convince Lars to take Bianca to the local doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson). Dagmar doubles as the town’s psychologist. In little time, Dagmar has convinced Lars that Bianca is ill and needs regular treatment and, while at the doctor’s office, needs rest, which, in turn, allows Dagmar to gently coax Lars into opening up to her about his fears, anxieties, and his pasts. Dagmar also suggests that Karin and Gus play along with (or, if you prefer, “enable”) Lars delusion until, at some unspecified point in time, Bianca is no longer “real” to him. Gus at first balks, concerned about how others in their community will react, but Karin sees an opportunity for the entire community to help Lars, beginning with Reverend Bock (R.D. Reid), the pastor of their church and Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty), an open-minded member of their community. From there, the support for Lars and Bianca grows in fits and starts.
Story wise, Lars and the Real Girl lies somewhere between highly implausible and the fantastical, if not for Lars' "relationship" with Bianca, which is either oddly affecting or perversely disturbing, then for how the small town reacts to Lars' mental illness (and it is a mental illness), ultimately "buying in" to his delusion in the hope that doing so will bring him closer to recovery. typically, small towns aren't depicted onscreen as repositories of benevolence and tolerance, but the opposite, as small-minded, intolerant, conformist, even racist. Whatever the truth, seeing Lars' town less as a depiction of the "real" world and more as one that exists in an alternate universe should be enough to sidestep any criticism.
That criticism becomes less important the closer Lars gets to the personal epiphany needed to recover. Gillespie and Oliver do just enough, offer just enough information about Lars' troubled childhood, one where normal physical contact and affection were missing, to justify Lars' mental illness and emotional reticence (physical contact literally causes Lars pain) as well as his novel answer to the suffocating loneliness he feels but can't escape, which Lars fills through an imaginary girlfriend made real. That Lars and the Real Girl doesn't depict mental illness or the recovery process "realistically" is probably a fair criticism, but in Gillespie and Oliver's hands, it does little to blunt Lars' poignant journey toward emotional wholeness. Call it wish fulfillment, call it fantastical. Either way, Lars and the Real Girl is (almost) as good as it gets.
And with Ryan Gosling in the lead role, Lars and the Real Girl becomes even better. Gosling makes Lars, with his tics, blinks, and awkward body language, a deeply sympathetic character. Gosling seems attracted to playing emotionally damaged, emotionally disturbed characters (e.g., Half-Nelson, Stay, The Slaughter Rule, The Believer), but those roles seem to bring out raw, authentic performances that can be difficult to watch for their accuracy. At this point in Gosling's career (he's almost twenty-seven), has already given award-worthy performances and, more likely than not, he'll continue to give them for as long as he wants to act.Gillespie also gets uniformly strong performances from his cast, relying heavily on Paul Schneider to play audience stand-in. As Gus, he's doubtful both about Lars' chosen method to heal himself and worried about how the townspeople will see Lars and by extension Gus. In his scenes with Gosling, it's clear they're brothers, not because of any physical resemblance, but because their speech patterns and body language suggest lives lived under self- and other-imposed repression, including of their feelings toward each other. Equally strong are Emily Mortimer as Lars' well-meaning sister-in-law and Kelli Garner as Lars' potential romantic partner. Garner uses her expressive face and large eyes to convey her befuddlement, wonderment, and longing for the vulnerable Lars. It's a note-perfect performance that won't get much attention, but it should.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=16346&reviewer=402
originally posted: 10/19/07 16:26:33