Lars and the Real Girl

In the most heartbreakingly awkward scene since Adam Sandler called a phone sex number because he just wanted someone to talk to in Punch-Drunk Love, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling, rapidly becoming my favorite actor) introduces his brother Guy and sister-in-law Karin (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) to his new girlfriend: a life-sized sex doll named Bianca. Lars purchased her online and has already given her a backstory: Her parents died soon after she was born, and the “half Brazilian, half Danish” Bianca was raised by nuns and grew up to be a missionary. She is also confined to a wheelchair and still isn’t very comfortable with English, so she doesn’t talk much.

Lars and the Real Girl takes a premise that easily (if not inevitably) could have degenerated into the worst kind of mean-spirited comedy, and transforms it into an amazingly sweet, gentle, and compassionate story. That’s not to say I didn’t laugh, though. Just the simple reaction shots of the cast when they are first introduced to Bianca are some of the funniest moments I have seen in a long time.

The day after Guy and Karin are introduced to Bianca, they bring Lars to the local doctor/psychologist (Patricia Clarkson) and ask her what’s wrong with Lars and what she can do to fix it. Instead of prescribing pills or encouraging them to institutionalize Lars, however, she tells them to play along with his delusion. There must be some reason Lars created Bianca, she tells them, and when that has been resolved, the Bianca delusion should fade away.

Since they are both quite religious, Lars asks Gus and Karin if Bianca can sleep at their house, instead of in the garage with him. Though they are reluctant to indulge him initially, their love for Lars compels them to accommodate his request. They also agree to feed, clothe, and even bathe Bianca.

As good as Gosling has been in past roles (particularly his drug-addicted junior-high teacher in Half Nelson, for which he received an Oscar nomination), he delivers his best performance yet as Lars. He is essentially responsible for the audience’s emotional connection with the story’s two lead characters, and nearly every scene he inhabits could have fallen into parody and farce, but he manages to keep the right balance throughout.

Lars is soon so infatuated with his doll that he tells his coworkers about her, takes her to parties, and even brings her to church with him. Earlier, when Gus and Karin asked the church for their advice on what to do with Lars, they decided to treat Bianca as if she were a real person. What it really comes down to, the pastor reminds them with an unbelievable lack of irony, is “What would Jesus do?”

Seeing this kind of a church in a movie, one that accepts and loves people no matter how eccentric and damaged they are, is almost as disconcerting as watching the development of Lars’s relationship with Bianca. As Jack Lucas came to understand in The Fisher King, Lars’s church knows that redemption comes by entering into a journey (or a quest), and not by purchasing a quick solution.

I veered between laughing and crying for the whole movie. Those of you who know me should not be surprised to read that I identified a lot with Lars. Interestingly, though, that identification was a source of smiles as much as sniffles. My deeper emotional reaction, though, was stirred by the way Lars’s friends and neighbors treat him and the concern they show for him, particularly his sister-in-law Karin (Mortimer).

Before I go any farther, you might as well know that I wish Emily Mortimer was my big sister. The sight of her face wrinkling with concern and affection is extremely comforting to me. But her concern is not merely passive. In one of the film’s turning points (and best scenes), she confronts Lars and explodes his notion that no one cares about him. Everything they’ve done for Bianca, she tells him, is because they care about him.

One of my unhealthier emotional bents is to wonder–and obsess–over whether cares or even thinks about me. My usual conclusion is “No,” which drives me deeper into myself and farther away from any help that might be out there. While I was watching the Lars, I kept wondering if I’m just too obsessed with my own dolls and my imaginary relationship to see the real caring people around me.

The final act of Lars organizes itself as a eucatastrophe (a word coined by Tolkien to express a good result arising out of a seemingly bad and hopeless situation): Lars begins to feel frustrated with his “relationship” with Bianca and the way she never says anything to him. Intellectually, we know this is a good development because it shows that Lars is moving away from his delusion, but it feels sad at the same time, because we too have grown attached to Bianca and the safe comfort she provides. But as Gus tells Lars in another one of the movie’s best moments, becoming a real man is about moving out of comfort and toward the (often uncomfortable) truth.



3 Responses to “Lars and the Real Girl”

  1. John Forcey Says:

    Haven’t seen this one yet, but I think I might want to now. I’m interested in seeing how things become resolved from Lars point of view.

  2. Erin Bryant Says:

    I’ve read mixed reviews about this movie so I haven’t been motivated to watch it yet. But I do enjoy Emily Mortimer and Ryan Gosling and from what you say it sounds worth watching. I’ll add it to my queue.

  3. Tim Says:

    [NB: these comments are from my blog post on this movie]

    This evening [Tuesday 14 April 08] I had a rare and fine experience at the cinema, by seeing the kind of comedy that really shows what the movie-making business can produce. The miracle movie? ‘Lars and the Real Girl’.

    It helps to completely suspend your sense of disbelief if you’re to get the most out of this story, and even if that proves very difficult at the start, there are plenty of extra chances along the way. A whole small town of people find they can do it, and nearly everyone surprises themselves in some way.
    The last movie with a small-town setting that charmed me this much was David Mamet’s ‘State and Main’, partly because in both movies the supporting cast and main cast genuinely support each other and the story at same time.

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