Lars (Ryan Gosling, “Half Nelson”) is a quiet young man who is petrified of contact with other humans. He spends his day in his cubicle at work, shunning the flirting of a new woman in the office, Margo (Kelli Garner), drives home through the snowy, cold streets and tries to quickly escape into the garage apartment he lives in. His brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live in the house, the brother’s parent’s home, and try to get Lars to have meals with them, to interact with them. But he would rather be alone. Then, one day, a box arrives and Lars’ new friend Bianca, a life size silicone sex doll, stops by for a visit. Because Lars is deeply religious, he asks Karin and Gus to put Bianca up in their house. Naturally, they are unsure of what to think or do, but they agree. They also notice Lars and his new friend are doing more, visiting people, sharing meals. Bianca is making Lars more normal human; despite the fact he seems to believe the doll is a real human. The rest of the people in his life notice the change as well, so they go along with this new development, treating Bianca like a real person as well. Gus and Karin take Lars and Bianca to see the town’s local practitioner, Dr. Berman (Patricia Clarkson) who is also versed in mental problems. She asks Lars to bring Bianca by every week to treat her illness. During these visits, she and Lars talk about his life, Bianca and everything else.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is a delightful film. Funny, touching and moving, it features winning performances and a quirky story becoming one of the more memorable films I have seen in some time.
“Lars” is, not surprisingly, about Lars. Because of this, it is important to set up his character and any of his idiosyncrasies very early. Filmmaker Craig Gillespie (“Mr. Woodcock”, it can’t be the same director, can it?) and writer Nancy Oliver (who wrote several episodes of “Six Feet Under”) do that. We first see Lars standing in his garage apartment staring out at the icy Minnesota (I’m guessing) landscape. When he notices his sister-in-law Karin walking over, he gets flustered and steps back, hiding behind the closed door. He soon realizes he will not be able to duck her for long and makes himself known. As they talk, it becomes clear that all she wants is for him to come for breakfast. No, he has to go to church. Then after church. Clearly, she will not take no, so he agrees. Happy, Karin rushes back to the warm house and hops into bed with Gus, her husband and Lars’ older brother. At church. Lars appears to be comfortable, but when a young woman, Margo, tries to talk to him, he panics and bolts. With those few scenes, we get what Lars is about, what makes him special and interesting.
We quickly realize there are three places Lars appears comfortable; alone in his apartment, semi-alone in his shared cubicle at work (his co-worker wears headphones and listens to music) and at church. Everywhere else, he gets frantic and doesn’t like to talk to people, doesn’t like to be touched by people.
As Gus and his wife discuss his brother, we learn little reasons behind this and it all starts to make sense.
I was speaking with someone the other day and they said they will see any film Meryl Streep and Ryan Gosling appear in. Is Ryan Gosling really at the level of Meryl Streep? No, not yet but he has been making some interesting career choices and turning in some very good performances. His breakthrough film was “The Notebook”, which made him a recognizable name. Then, he followed that up with “Half Nelson” which garnered him an Academy Award nomination. Rightfully so, because he was great in the little seen independent film. Then, he made “Fracture”, a good, but unspectacular film. Gosling is good in it, but opposite Anthony Hopkins he seems like warmed over Jodie Foster playing the poor Southern boy who wants to be a rich lawyer. Now, he is “Lars”.
I hope Gosling will be able to find a balance between the commercial projects most young actors feel they need to sustain their careers and the independent projects they appear in, which allow them to show their chops. As Lars, Gosling is able to portray everything about his character in a way that allows us to learn these things, making the portrayal more subtle and interesting. We see things and hear things that are clues to his character, his history, his life. Lars is a little quiet and appears a little slow, but he is just nervous about contact with other humans. A little off (he does start having conversations with a plastic doll) he still functions normally. All of this points to a skewed upbringing, which seems to have affected him in a deep and personal way. Because he is a little slow, a little dysfunctional, people notice the change Bianca brings about, leading them to embrace this unconventional development.
It is also a little mesmerizing to watch Gosling portray the change in Lars character. He is reclusive and quiet until Bianca shows up, after which he is suddenly ready to embrace the world as much as Lars is able to embrace anything. Then, as he realizes he has feelings for Margo, Lars begins to have problems with Bianca.
Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider play Karin and Gus, Lars’ pregnant stepsister and brother. Their performances play off each other very well. Karin realizes Lars is reluctant to participate in the family, but continues to press him because she needs his companionship; Gus needs his companionship as much as Lars needs theirs. Naturally, she is the most willing to accept Bianca as a real person. But she also helps Gus realize the benefits of this new ‘woman’ in Lars life. Gus is very reluctant, incredulous even, until he starts to see the change in his brother. He has some feelings of guilt; he left the house as quickly as he could, leaving Lars with their reclusive, silent father. So, he wants to bring Lars into their lives, but he has a wife and a new baby on the way. When Bianca initially shows up, he immediately assumes he will have to put Lars in a hospital, something they simply can’t afford. They are nice performances and work better because they complement each other so well. We really get a feel they are a couple who are deeply in love and ready to start a family. Mortimer has been in many films and her work is very good here. Schneider is less well known, but he recently appeared in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and is a recognizable face.
Patricia Clarkson does a nice turn as Dr. Berman, the general practitioner in the small town. Because the town is small, she knows everyone and also has some training in therapy, a requirement for a small community. As soon as Karin suggests they take Bianca in for a check-up, Dr. Berman tells Lars she needs to see Bianca once a week, for treatments, for her ‘illness’. Immediately following the treatments, Berman insists Bianca needs to rest, giving Lars and the doctor a chance to communicate. As they communicate, we realize Berman has set all of this up to give her the opportunity to have impromptu sessions with Lars.
The film is all the more amusing because it is about a small, close-knit community that comes together when they realize one of their own needs some help. For instance, the church elders agree to let Bianca become a member of their congregation. This is funny enough, but these small town folk carry it to a very funny extreme. Better yet, these moments seem natural and in no way denigrate small town people.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is also very touching. The last few moments of the film really pack an emotional wallop and you leave the theater feeling happy having spent a little of your time with Lars and his friends and family.