the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

How exactly do you pitch a film like Lars and the Real Girl?

“Picture this: a painfully shy young man orders a sex doll on the Internet and takes it with him everywhere he goes.”

I’m sure studios were lining up with their wallets out. Well, if they weren’t, they should have been. Lars and the Real Girl is an incontestable delight (and not even remotely the risqué film some might assume it to be).

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is not simply socially awkward, he’s socially inept. Unable to stand the touch of another human being, he prefers to sit alone in the dark, wrapped in the small blanket his mother knitted when he was born. Lars lives in the garage apartment behind his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin’s (Emily Mortimer) house. Karin has made it her mission in life to extract the damaged but gentle Lars from his shell, constantly inviting him over for dinner despite his pitiful excuses as to why he is always unavailable.

One night Lars unexpectedly shows up on their doorstep with an announcement. He has a girlfriend. Is it Lars’ perky co-worker, Margo (Kelli Garner) who is always watching him from the church choir loft? Overjoyed at the news, Gus and Karin are stunned when Lars reveals a life-sized love doll whom he calls Bianca. He’s even invented an airtight back story: Bianca is a half-Brazilian, half-Danish paraplegic missionary raised by nuns who has come to the States for furlough after meeting Lars online. She’s “very religious,” of course, and would need to stay in Gus and Karin’s guest room.

Is Lars putting on an act? It doesn’t appear that way. He treats Bianca the same in private as he does in public.

Gus is appalled and considers having his brother committed, while Karin’s leveler head sees some glimmer of hope in Lars’ actions, however absurd they may be. When Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, who brings a deeply compassionate intelligence to the role) recommends playing along until they can determine what part of Lars desperately needs Bianca to exist, the whole town gets into the act. While Lars drags Bianca everywhere, even to church, the small Wisconsin town in which he lives welcomes her as if she were every bit as real as Lars believes her to be. For them, Lars — eccentricities and all — is worth the compassion and even the benefit of the doubt.

Lars and the Real Girl is directed by Craig Gillespie (who incongruously enough also directed this summer’s critically and commercially panned Mr. Woodcock) and written by Nancy Oliver (“Six Feet Under”). If the plot sounds like the perfect set-up for a raunchy comedy, think again. Bianca may have been manufactured for sex, but Lars’ relationship with her is completely chaste. Indeed, the film blessedly never once indulges in even a hint of smut, even though there were so many opportunities where it could have.

This is not to say that a grown man lugging around an anatomically correct sex doll doesn’t have inherently funny scenes. But Lars' genuine humor erupts from the quietist, most unexpected moments, not the widely telegraphed ones to which a lesser film would succumbed.

Ryan Gosling is one of the finest actors we have. His performance is a study in serenity, control and tone — too little and we’d never buy his delusion; too much and we’d be looking for a straitjacket with Gus. But Gosling plays Lars with pinpoint control and quirky believability, delivering a performance that is never creepy and always endearing.

Lars and the Real Girl’s magic lies in its total sincerity. The characters in the film play it straight and we take our cues for how to respond based upon their actions. As the community folds Lars and Bianca into their lives, so do we. So strong is Lars’ attachment and his friends’ commitment to kindness, that we suddenly find personality where before there had been only silicone. If Frank Capra made a film about a man, his sex doll, and the nostalgically caricatured community in which they lived, this would be it.

The Wisconsin landscape is like something out of a Bergman film — cold, hard, iced over and spartan. You half expect the characters to speak in Swedish. The film is even suffused with Bergman’s religious undertones, though none of his dark doubt.

Sure, this quiet, little film is implausible, but if you look at Lars and the Real Girl as a sort of parable, the film’s logic begins to make its own charming sense. You see the hard-fought, satisfying conclusion coming, slowly working its way toward you, and still you are moved. (Hint: the title is Lars and the Real Girl, not Lars and the Fake Girl.) When you feel tears well up in your eyes, or hear giggles in the dark, you know the movie has spun its magic.

Don’t let Lars’ off-putting premise turn you off to what is one of the most life affirming, gratifying films you’ll see this year. In a world of fakes, Lars is the real deal.


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