April 19, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl Review


Length: 106 min

The search for true love begins outside the box.

Précis: Sweet and gently funny film about a man who believes his doll is real, and his friends’ efforts to support him.

Review by Matt:

Lars and the Real Girl takes a fairly eccentric premise – man treats sex-doll as if it is a real woman – and turns it into a touching film about a damaged man’s battle to face up to life’s difficulties and embrace adult responsibilities. If you’re after American Pie style jokes about sex-dolls: wrong film. In fact if you’re a teenager looking at all for a juvenile guffaw: wrong film. From a distance, Lars and the Real Girl probably looks like it could have been all smutty chuckles, possibly featuring an oily Rob Schneider. But Australian director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (writer of TV’s Six-Feet Under) haven’t been tempted by the potential for vulgar laughs. Instead they’ve created something much more sensitive. Lars and the Real Girl still has a humorous touch, but it’s primarily a sweet and feel-good film that is much more about people and community than it is about sex dolls.

It must have been hard to nail down the right tone in a film where a man sits at dinner with his brother, sister-in-law, and “Bianca”, a life-size, anatomically-complete female doll. Indeed Lars and the Real Girl walks a fairly thin line between lovely and preposterous. But generally it keeps its balance and it’s quite easy to be drawn into the film’s sentimental mood. Much of the credit for this goes to the splendid Ryan Gosling, who plays the pathologically nervous Lars. He gives Lars a likeable sincerity and transforms most of the potential for creepiness into a childish naivety. The nuanced performance intimates at traumatic scars that might lurk behind Lars’ delusion.

So, when Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’s wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) stare with sadness and disbelief at Lars and his silicone sweetheart, we mostly share their stress and concern. It’s a concern ultimately shared by the entire hamlet where Lars lives, because the family doctor (Patricia Clarkson) explains that Bianca appears completely real to Lars and that the best way to help him is to indulge his delusion. “What would Jesus do?” asks the town priest when presented with the problem. Evidently Jesus’s compassion extends to man, beast and sex-doll, because soon all of the friendly townsfolk are going out of their way to entertain Lars and his mate. Although the film isn’t noisy about it, it sure is nice to see the church accepting of this unconventional couple. The rest of the story follows the town’s efforts to be accommodating and Lars’ own efforts to emerge into life as a functioning adult without the support of his artificial crotch – ahem – crutch.

It’s entertaining to watch the townsfolk react to the predicament. Lars’ brother is understandably mortified and disbelieving, channeling some of our own feelings. Others are more laid back and lighthearted about it. The remaining entertainment comes from watching Lars’ doctor and others try to unravel the psychological complexities behind poor Lars’ condition. It’s all a little bit like a warped It’s a Wonderful Life. You know inside that the outpouring of empathy isn’t quite realistic (how many strangers and their sex-dolls have you entertained recently?), and you can quickly see why the film had to be set in a tiny close-knit community. But, gosh, you also know inside that this is how people should treat each other.  It’s best not to think about it harder than that. If you begin to imagine that this is a film that is seriously examining mental illness, its light-on approach is potentially offensive. Best just to look at it as promoting a general message of tolerance.

Even within this model of unreality, some elements of the film still stretch reality a bit too far, particularly  the part of Margo (Kelli Garner), Lars’ saccharine work colleague. She’s Lars’ real real girl; Margo is not just understanding, she also has an inexplicable romantic interest in Lars. What’s annoying is that she really has no reason to desire Lars – he’s unkind to her and, of course, he’s a bit freaky. It’s one of those all-too-common movie conceits that we’re supposed to accept that Margo seems to have psychically absorbed all the privileged insights about Lars that we’ve been shown as an audience. The Margo on screen is actually distanced from Lars, and it would have been nicer to see her discover a magic in Lars for herself.

Lars and the Real Girl is a decent film and an enjoyable watch. It’s a fairly mild experience, but it’s quirky with some scattered laughs and it is pleasantly life-affirming. It’s commendable that it achieved this through such an unusual avenue and that’s due to a strong, consistent vision, realized with thoughtful acting, writing and direction.


One comment

  1. just saw Lars and the Real Girl, had never even heard of the movie before last night, Ryan Gosling did a great job playing out his character’s psychological transition from totally dysfunctional to somewhat functional

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