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Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Lars and the Real Girl

There are comedies that work because they have contempt for their characters and openly invite us to mock and scorn them, and there are comedies that work because their love for their characters is so absolute, that the audience can’t help but fall in love with them, too. Lars and the Real Girl is a film full of such warmth and kindness that you never want it to be over.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a shy and awkward person who lives in the garage beside the family home where his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live and are expecting their first baby. Lars keeps to himself to such an extent that Karin is convinced that something is wrong and is constantly urging him to come over to the house to spend time with them. He politely declines, always with a lame excuse. One night he comes to them. He has a visitor, he explains, and he’d like to bring her over. Gus and Karin aren’t quite sure what to make of Bianca, a Real Girl sex doll that Lars has ordered over the internet – not for sex, but for companionship. Lars treats Bianca as if she’s a real person. The local psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson) encourages Gus and Karin to go along with his delusion because it isn’t hurting anyone, and soon the rest of the town is going along with it as well, embracing Bianca as part of the community (at one point Lars is asked what his plans are for Friday and he says, “I have a school board meeting. Bianca got elected, so…”).

This is a plot that could go wrong in so many ways – it could be too twee, too broad, or turn crude – but it manages to hit all the right notes. Lars is never treated like the town freak – some citizens are hesitant, at first, to accept Bianca, but soon she’s a regular at church services and “volunteering” at the hospital while Lars is at work; and we slowly come to understand why he has created this delusion for himself. We also come to understand that what he’s doing isn’t objectively that weird. Yes, he is carrying on conversations with a doll, but look at two of his coworkers: one has a collection of action figures around his desk, another keeps small stuffed bears. A war of sorts breaks out between them as each messes with these things that are so precious to the other. Is Lars’ attachment to Bianca fundamentally that different from their relationships to their toys?

Another reason why the film works so well is that every actor is exactly right for his or her role, especially Gosling. We believe that he thinks Bianca is a real person, that they’re having a real relationship, but we don’t think that he’s crazy. We see his despair and his loneliness and we come to understand him, rather than judge him. There are not a lot of actors who could have played this role and found so fine a balance between comedy and tragedy. Schneider is good as the brother, worried about what the town will think and worried also that he’s to blame for Lars’ predicament. Mortimer and Clarkson are excellent in quiet, gentle roles, each trying to help the brothers come to terms with the still unresolved past.

There is sadness in this film, but there is also comedy and there is hope. You’ll leave the theater feeling good because you’ll know that Lars is going to be okay, because he lives in a place where people will help him make it so. This isn’t a film that toys with you or manipulates you with cheap sentiment. This is a film that approaches its material with such sincerity, such natural laughs and such natural heartbreak, that you simply let yourself be carried along with it.

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