Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is not a comedy nor is it particularly funny. It is not silly or superficial and though at times light-hearted, sentimentality functions just near the surface without ever truly imposing on our like or dislike of the story. While caught between the implausible and the impossible, nowhere near any one genre in particular and about as quirky and original as independent films go, “Lars” asks nothing if not your willingness to explore the possibility of unconventional love. You might get distracted by the premise of a man falling in love with a ‘sex doll’ but the film is less about the perversion of such a scenario as it is about chance encounters and purposeful decisions. In the end what you walk away with is an appreciation for minutia, for things both great and small and how if you try you find them scattered throughout your everydayness.
There is no doubt one must embrace a willing suspension of disbelief to fully appreciate this film. The very parameters of such an investment are dictated by the understanding that if a writer or filmmaker can infuse a human interest with a semblance of truth into a fantastical tale, the reader/viewer can suspend judgment concerning plausibility of the narrative. Surely no one going into the theater to watch this film would do so unknowing of the premise – a lonely man orders a ‘sex doll’ from the internet, falls in love with it, and through the help of his brother’s wife enlists the entire small town where he lives in helping him to get over their inevitable break-up and his return to some form of normalcy. If indie films were required to operate at just such a level of preposterousness then certainly this film would succeed and then some. But what is so interesting about this film, as others have written, is how easy it manages such a balancing act, how at every turn we expect the story to succumb to sentimentality or worse, ridiculousness for the sake of exploring Lars’s troubled past and how it is the answer to why he is, for lack of a better way of putting it, so messed up. Fortunately for us, and the filmmakers, they employ Ryan Gosling and surround him will very capable, emotive, and expressively supportive actors who embrace his every pause and silence with poise and grace.
The film is based on a screenplay by Nancy Olivers (Six Feet Under,True Blood) and she is unapologetically clear that this story is more about the aftermath of a life collision than the collision itself or even the moments leading up to it. No flashbacks or aggressive, frantic outbursts result in Lars getting in trouble; no drunken traffic accidents or inappropriate advances toward others. Instead Oliver’s externalizes an internal journey and the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” is cleverly articulated, always at the ready to underscore and connect the fantastical with the realistic. While this detail should have been developed earlier and with more importance, it is not long into the story when the crate arrives with the sex doll and the village indeed begins to rally around Lars like a make a wish foundation event only Lars isn’t dying as much as he is teetering on the precipice of rebirth. Along with Gosling’s amazing performance, this attention to quiet and persistence of the genuine saves the film from certain indie-concept over story doom as well as elevates it to a level that surprises, rewards, and entertains.
Ryan Gosling captivates us as he is quite literally transformed into the character of Lars, a muttering recluse with quirky, expressive bursts of peculiarity. There is nothing outwardly artificial, no prosthetics or considerable weight gain. Instead Gosling appears like Gosling, a bit bundled with layers for the weather and other reasons, but none-the-less his performance originates from a deeper place and resonates in every scene. He seems so at home beneath the skin of Lars that he makes us believe every nervous tic and one can’t help but recall Leonardo DiCaprio’s brilliant role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallström – Chocolat, The Shipping News) and the brave and truthful manner in which he lived for a little while as a savant without a creative outlet to quell his manic behavior. DiCaprio has yet to bring such mastery to any role since. It is nearly impossible to separate Gosling from Lars, his performance so profoundly moving that he removes all sense of himself, all glimmer of normalcy gone as easily as a twitch of the mouth, a rapid succession of blinking or quiet seconds where he serenades his love interest Bianca or dances, entranced blissfully and completely.
Patricia Clarkson plays the doctor who also happens to be a psychologist and informs Lars as much as the audience to a condition regarding his love interest, the doll, that steadily worsens as serves at least with some regard to his developing a connection with the real world. She is effective if not under-utilized; there simply isn’t enough character for her to do much with. You’d find Clarkson shining in the films The Station Agent and High Art, both highly recommended. Emily Mortimer (Harry Brown, my review of City Island) is convincing as the dutiful sister-in-law but again her character, like that of her on-screen husband Paul Schneider (The Assassination of Jesse James) are light and serve plot more than fully rounded characters. I don’t think this is necessarily a major problem for the story but it would have been interesting to see more from these talented actors. Kelli Garner (Dreamland, Thumbsucker), is Margo, a fresh and inviting distant fancy and is often at her best at times during simple reactions to Gosling; they share a special chemistry, not quite lovers but something more than causal.
Do not mistake this film as a comedy though it is obvious there are plenty of funny bits at every turn. More a psychological character study without the messy realism, “Lars” embodies hope of change and the birth of opportunity. As an emotionally scarred, socially inept man-child on the brim of habitual isolation, this film is first a fantasy about the power of the self to overcome with the help of others, with the kindness of strangers and community. There is clearly a dividing line between change and staying the same, between Lars the delusional savant who hasn’t figured out his special talent yet and Lars the man who just wants to be left alone. Where this journey takes us is in part in answer to that very question; Lars is a catalyst for the ordinary world around him, the ordinary town and her people, his own ordinariness that becomes change with far and lasting consequences. It is through his genuineness that his family, friends, and the people of the town connect and the heartfelt love affair that ensues is as much about Lars change as it is a reawakening of everyone else around him. When Lars is healed he in turn heals others or in the least offers them their own chance at the precipice of change where he started and maybe for the first time in their life they have an inkling of what happiness might be like.
Lars and the Real Girl is a film that Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calls “the best possible version of itself.” Brad Luen at stylusmagazine.com calls it a “standard emo-indie-flick..both overly sentimental..and Goslings skills are ultimately wasted as there’s no opportunity for [him; re: Half Nelson]. Philip French from The Observer calls “Lars” a “Moral fable..exploring kindness, understanding, love and acceptance of human diversity” and Roger Ebert adds, “Gosling’s performance says things that cannot be said..His weapon is absolute sincerity.” Such diverse opinions seem at odds but if you look closer everyone is really talking about the same thing – effect. In each instance a writer is commenting on the structure and character and content, on emotional variance and the differing modes of arriving at understanding. These are the sorts of things we discuss when a film has reached us and we haven’t fully come to appreciate why or how. Sometimes it is disconcerting that a film reaches that personal place deep down inside us and our first reaction is a defensive one. Then, later, we pause during the sunset or hover near the trailing sound of the Bart train disappearing on the last of the hour and the sound washes over us and reminds us of the power and awe of simplicity. “Lars” might still be there at the end of the movie on a long walk with Margo as the rest of daylight finishes off into the night and then again he might have changed his mind, like we sometimes do, about the value of naïveté and sunsets.