Lars and the Real Girl (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Lars and the Real Girl is an example of how even the most ridiculous premise can be used to construct a smart, touching motion picture. The film sounds like it was developed with Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell in mind, but the key here is that, while there are laughs to be had, Lars and the Real Girl is intended to be taken seriously. This is not a rude, crude, lewd comedy. It takes an idea that could easily be reduced to a series of sex jokes and pratfalls and develops it into something intelligent and thoughtful. But, yes, even taken seriously, it's nothing less than absurd, and the filmmakers know that. Such recognition is a key to debut director Craig Gillespie's success because he understands how to get the audience to the place where they embrace the characters and believe their situations rather than laugh at them.

So what's it about? Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a socially awkward man who spends his days huddled in a cubbyhole at work and his nights hiding out in the garage-turned-apartment he calls home. Ryan's sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), is worried about him, but Lars' big brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), doesn't think it's something to be concerned about. He changes his mind when Lars brings home a girlfriend. For Karin and Gus, delight turns to shock when they "meet" her. She's Bianca - a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll (one of the high priced ones, not the cheap blow-up models). Lars treats her exactly as he would a real woman, although he concedes that she doesn't speak much English, is in a wheelchair, and is shy. Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the local psychiatrist, believes that the best approach to Lars' delusion is to play along with it. Soon, the entire town is treating Bianca with respect, including Margo (Kelli Garner), a girl who is hoping Lars will dump Bianca for her.

TV commercial director Gillespie (whose Mr. Woodcock is also reaching theaters this fall) has infused his film with equal parts comedy and pathos. Arguably, the funniest moments of the movie come when Karin and Gus are introduced to Bianca. There are other introductions as well, but Gillespie resists the temptation to overplay the hand and overuse the joke to the point where it is no longer funny. There's sadness here, too - sadness that Lars' upbringing with a cold, broken-hearted father left him feeling unloved, and sadness that Lars is too afraid of real intimacy to let anyone physically touch him. To him, a hug isn't a comfort. It feels like a burn. Gillespie isn't afraid of laughter and tears, and he orchestrates their merger with complete confidence. Lars and the Real Girl takes a lot of chances, and succeeds mostly because they all work.

Canadian-born Ryan Gosling, one of his country's most prominent up-and-coming actors, is wonderful as Lars, playing the part completely straight. He's moody and broody, but we understand a little of his pain and are able to sympathize with him. As far as Lars is concerned, Bianca is the best thing to happen to him, although the brief glimpses provided into Lars' psyche by the actor hint that he knows how fragile his fairy tale world is. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer are excellent in supporting roles. One could argue that they have it tougher since their characters see Bianca for what she is but must pretend she's something else. Both get chances to play their share of comedic and serious scenes, and neither misses a beat no matter what the tone. Other supporting players include the always-reliable Patricia Clarkson as the psychiatrist who suggests sympathy over ridicule and Kelli Garner as the very real girl who might provide Lars with an alternative to Bianca.

Gillespie navigates the tightrope so well that he doesn't even need a balancing pole. The shifts in tone between comedy and serious material are adroitly handled. We never feel like we're being jerked around or that the film has stumbled on the unevenness of its terrain. Lars and the Real Girl hits all the right notes, never allowing the humor to become too broad or the drama to become too serious. Bianca's primary intended function is referenced only a couple of times - and not too crudely - and we are not subjected to the kind of physical amusement that characterized the dead-man-almost-walking A Weekend at Bernie's. While "quirky" is a good descriptor for the production, Lars and the Real Girl isn't so bizarre that mainstream movie goers will reject it. This is an offbeat independent production that could become one of those big little fall surprises.

Lars and the Real Girl (United States, 2007)

Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Kelli Garner, Paul Schneider
Screenplay: Nancy Oliver
Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Music: David Torn
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1