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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