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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Lars and the Real Girl (review)

It Takes a Village

Ooo, ick was my reaction when I first heard about Lars and the Real Girl. Because I had, unfortunately, heard about Real Dolls, the anatomically correct sex toys that are as lifelike as silicone can be. Which means they look like corpses. And the thought of a movie about a lonely guy who buys one of them and pretends it’s his girlfriend? No. No no no no.
Except I didn’t really think the movie would approach it from any kind of tack that would be icky, so I was intrigued to see what tack it would take instead. And it turns out that Lars is far sweeter and far more moving that I could ever have imagined, a tenderly sad and gloriously hopeful ode to family and community and the therapeutic power of acceptance. This isn’t just a movie that manages to achieve a level of not-ickiness that makes it watchable, it’s a perfect movie in all ways: it’s far more inventive and adventurous than most movies dare, it’s perfectly realized in all its many small details, and it is performed by a cast who so beautifully disappear into their roles that they become real people whom you wish you knew.

None of it would have worked without Ryan Gosling (Stay, Murder by Numbers) as Lars, an ordinary guy who works an ordinary office job in the upper Midwest, who makes you ache for Lars and his extraordinary problems. Gosling is an amazingly sensitive actor who always seems to find just the right path inside a complicated character — here, he makes the slow revelation of the depth of Lars’s psychosis a thing of broken beauty. At first it seems that, perhaps, he’s merely pathologically shy, which would be detrimental enough to living a full life, but there are much more profound issues at play in his head. (The striking production design gives Lars a garage apartment that’s cold and bare as a monk’s cell, and overdresses him in too many layers of clothes — they’re among those perfect details that hint of what it’s like to be Lars.) And as the delicate script, by Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver, peels away Lars’s bruised layers, Gosling gradually lets us in, just as he eventually begins to do with his family — his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider: The Family Stone, George Washington) and Gus’s wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer: Dear Frankie, Young Adam) — as well as the folk of their small town.

He doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing, but Lars’s cry for direction out of his desert of loneliness comes when he starts introducing everyone to “Bianca,” whom he “met” on the Internet. She’s a Real Doll, of course, and she arrived in a crate, but he tells everyone she’s from South America and that she’s a missionary. Lars’s “we’re both religious” explanation allows the movie to put Bianca in the guest room at Gus and Karin’s house and removes all possibility of the creepiness that would have resulted had “Bianca” been spending nights at Lars’s place. The Bianca fantasy isn’t about sex but about connecting — not that sex isn’t about connecting, of course, but Lars is reaching out to everyone in his need to finally become part of the world, and only with one dorkily cute coworker, Margo (Kelli Garner: Man of the House, The Aviator), does it have anything to do with anything that might one day begin to approach romance.

And here is where the lovely, pure freshness of Lars begins: the town welcomes Bianca, throws open their hearts to her. Which means they’re really throwing open their hearts to Lars — this is inexpressibly touching, how much these people love Lars and how far they are willing to go to help him help himself. It’s expressed in the micro by the town’s doctor and psychologist, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson: No Reservations, Good Night, and Good Luck.), who, under the guise of “treating” Bianca for a chronic illness, tentatively attempts to unravel Lars’s problems. It’s in these scenes that Gosling’s performance approaches a kind of genius, in how he lets us see that Lars is so badly damaged that you almost can’t imagine how he can be saved, but also that there is a certain unconscious bravery in what Lars has done in making himself so vulnerable by opening the door to his fantasy and asking the whole world to come inside.

In a moment of personal disaster, the town rallies round those who need comforting. “We came to sit,” one of the ladies explains. “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes — they come and sit.” And that’s what Lars and the Real Girl is: coming and sitting with someone who needs not to be alone.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for some sex-related content

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • JT

    It’s a very sweet movie, but it doesn’t quite reach greatness. I thought Ryan Gosling’s performance was too affected and mannered – lots of blinking and smiling and frustrating pauses. I also thought that the movie could have spent some time towards the end exploring the friendship/romance between Lars and Margo. Kelli Garner was underused. The last shot of the movie with the two of them left me wanting more. And the therapy sessions with Patricia Clarkson’s character were not developed enough. At one point, Lars recoils at her touch. Some time later, he’s shaking hands with someone at work. I don’t think we saw enough of his progression.

    However, where Gosling falters, Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer are fantastic. There’s one scene where Karin explodes at Lars because he thinks no one cares about him. Mortimer was brilliant and I think she should get an Oscar nomination. Nancy Oliver does a great job by not letting the script descend into sex jokes or contrived circumstances. There were at least two scenes – when Lars and Bianca come to the party and when Lars is at the bowling alley – when I thought ‘Surely someone is going to make fun of Lars here’, but the movie surprised me by never going there. It’s a refreshing, beautiful film.

  • MaryAnn

    I also thought that the movie could have spent some time towards the end exploring the friendship/romance between Lars and Margo.

    But it’s not really about whether they end up together — what’s important is that Lars begins to interact with real people and that suddenly his possibilities are far wider then they ever were before.

  • Nicole

    I haven’t seen the movie, but when I heard about the premise all I could think about was Mr. Universe’s “lovebot” from Serenity, and her robotic antecedents from Buffy.

  • macbrooks

    A movie about a guy with a blow-up doll? Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll pass.

    mac :]

  • MaryAnn

    Actually, this is quite an old-fashioned kind of movie. You know: small town taking care of one of its own. It’s practically *It’s a Wonderful Life.*

  • MBI

    I should really hate this movie.

    I mean, why exactly does the nerd hottie in the office fall for Lars? What does she see in him? And the film downplays the wrongness of it all too much; I feel like a more honest film would show a guy that lonely using it for its intended purpose. They could have at least showed them making out all the time or something, but it’s too afraid to go there. God, I really should hate this movie.

    I can only conclude that I’m a complete pussy, because I really liked it. Hit me in the same place that likes babies and puppies.

    Well, time to go re-watch Saw III.

  • MaryAnn

    why exactly does the nerd hottie in the office fall for Lars? What does she see in him?

    What I liked, actually, about her and where her character falls in Lars’s story is that it’s not as if she’s madly in love with him — the movie does not suggest that she is the perfect woman for him (or that he is perfect for her) or that they’d be able to live happily ever after or anything. She represents mere possibility. They could go out a couple of times and discover they really don’t have anything to offer each other… but only if he were more able to deal with people.

    So I don’t think it’s accurate to say that she “falls for him.” She’s intrigued by him, sure, interested enough to want to find out if she might be more interested, if she could fall for him — but that’s as far as it goes, that we see.

  • MBI

    Yeah, that sounds about right. That’s probably one reason why this movie works so much better than it has a right to.

  • Scott P.

    I saw Lars a few weeks ago at a weekday matinee showing populated mostly by older women. I thought to myself “Uh-oh, these ladies are expecting to see that dreamy Ryan Gosling from The Notebook. This movie is going to totally freak them out.”

    Instead, this wonderful movie won absolutely everyone over.

    In the scene where Lars first introduces Bianca to his brother & sister-in-law, there were two older ladies in my row laughing so hysterically that I stopped watching the screen & started watching them because they were so entertaining. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of uncontrolled laughter in a movie theatre.

    But I’m a sucker for movies like this in which the main character is a total misfit clumsily trying to find his/her place in the world & a special person to share that world with them– Lars, Amelie, Punch Drunk Love, The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine, Garden State.

  • Tim

    Dear MaryAnn,

    Thanks so much for a wonderful review!

    I was flying home to Australia last night and decided to watch ‘Lars’ on the plane – without ever hearing about it. At the end I couldn’t believe what a perfect movie it was… and whether anyone would think the same thing when it’s released here. So I got on Rotten Tomatoes just to make sure I wasn’t delusional :)

    It’s pure bliss… brave, funny, warm, and obviously a labour of love by everyone involved.

    (Oh and I loved Eternal Sunshine and Garden State… will have to check out the others you mentioned.)

    Best wishes,


  • Frank

    *some spoilers*

    What most impressed me about the movie was that it could have gone wrong in so many ways, and it didn’t. They could have had Lars’ juvenile office mate steal Bianca, but they didn’t. They could have had somebody else try to get it off with Bianca, but they didn’t. They could have made Lars’ brother much less understanding – instead they gave him his own little redemptive arc.

    It’s still a fairytale, but it’s a perfect, innocent, uplifting fairytale.

    And yes, I did get slightly teary when Bianca died.

  • MaryAnn

    I did get slightly teary when Bianca died.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. Because it’s not about a doll dying but a man discovering that he wants to live.

  • amanohyo

    “Riiiise from your gwaaaave!”

    People warned me that this would be a little saccharine, but I had no freakin’ idea. Even the sexist jerks in this movie are kind-hearted softies! It’s pure madness. I want to live in the universe where this movie takes place, where Christians actually follow the teachings of Jesus instead of hand-picked dictates of his doofus dad and the most traumatic violence imaginable is the attempted lynching of a teddy bear. You win this round Nancy Oliver and co., but next time! Next time not a single tear! This, I command!

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