I sure would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Six Feet Under scribe Nancy Oliver pitched her script for Lars and the Real Girl: "See, it's about this guy who falls in love with a sex doll -- only he doesn't use the doll for sex, see? He's delusional, and he really thinks she's a real person, get it? Oh, but it's not a comedy, it's really kind of melancholy and depressing." Not the sexiest pitch in the world to have to sell, is it? And yet, the concept works -- and works very well -- if you're able to suspend a fair amount of disbelief.
The best thing about the film, nor surprisingly, is Ryan Gosling, who's proven to have quite a remarkable range as an actor. In last year's Half Nelson, Gosling made a crack-addicted middle-school teacher sympathetic; as Lars, he takes on the challenge of creating an emotionally disconnected and delusional character that the audience can connect with. It's a difficult trick to pull off; the character of Lars is so completely out of touch emotionally and socially from everyone around him, that the hardest bit to suspend disbelief around is that any of the people in the small town in which he lives would actually go to the lengths they do in order to help him. But maybe I'm just jaded from eight years of living in Seattle, where people tend to refer to the interpersonal dynamic as "Seattle-friendly" (translation: friendly enough on the surface, but the emotional walls don't come down too easily). Lars lives in the garage behind the main house where his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) lives with his pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). Karin is concerned about Lars, who keeps to himself -- a lot. Lars is the kind of guy about whom, if he ever went nuts and took out half the town in a shooting spree, folks being interviewed by CNN would say, "Gee, he was a nice enough guy, the quiet type. Kept to himself a lot, but I sure never would have thought he'd turn violent like that." He lives in a barely-furnished garage, where he sits alone in the dark. He wears the blue baby blanket knitted for him by his mother as a scarf. He dresses in layers of flannel, thermals, and thick sweaters (well, okay, to be fair, so does everyone else -- the film is set in a far-northern small town in the middle of winter -- I got cold just watching the film, but Lars has his own reasons for keeping layers of fabric between himself and other people).
Karin tries gamely to engage Lars in interacting socially with her and Gus, extending repeated invites to meals which Lars just as repeatedly turns down or avoids. She finally resorts to tackling him in the driveway one night, just to get Lars to sit at the table with them so he can uncomfortably push his food around his plate, clearly wishing he was back in the solitude of his garage. When Margo (Kelli Garner), a perky new co-worker, tries to break the ice with Lars, she finds herself up against a determination to be left alone that she's unable to crack with her sunny friendliness. But then one day, Lars unexpectedly knocks on the door of his brother's house and informs Gus and Karin that he has a guest -- a woman he met over the internet. He asks if the woman, Bianca, can stay in the spare bedroom while she's there, and Gus and Karin, thrilled that Lars is finally breaking out of his self-imposed solitary confinement, eagerly agree.
They aren't quite so thrilled when they meet Bianca, though, and discover that Lars's new friend is a very realistic-looking sex doll -- and that Lars seems quite convinced that she's real. He introduces Bianca as being from Brazil, and glibly explains away her inability to walk ("She's in a wheelchair, but it was stolen.") In short order, Lars moves Bianca into the spare bedroom (the room that belonged to his mother, who died when Lars was born), gets her a new wheelchair, and borrows some clothes from Karin to replace the tarted-up outfit she arrived in. Gus and Karin, not sure how to handle the situation, suggest to Lars that Bianca looks unwell and should have a checkup, and he agrees to take her to their family doc, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who, conveniently, is also a shrink.
Dagmar tells Gus and Karin that the only thing they can do is play along with Lars's delusion that Bianca is real, and hope that Bianca has come into Lars's life to help him heal. This is where the film gets a little heavy -- and I don't mean that in a bad way. If this was just a comedy with a guy falling in love with a sex doll, Lars and the Real Girl would come off as a cheesy Mannequin remake. But this is a layered story about love and loss and guilt, and whether someone can ever heal from deep childhood wounds. Gus, the older brother, left home as soon as he could, unable to handle their father's terrible depression following the death of their mother. He took off and never looked back, abandoning his younger brother to be raised, alone, by man who rarely talked and who could not love or show affection.
Imagine growing up, feeling the weight of guilt for your mother's death as a constant presence; imagine being a small child never held, never hugged, never kissed, rarely touched or spoken too. Lars is a man so warped by his childhood, it's remarkable he can get along socially well-enough to even hold down a job or function in society (he barely manages the latter). Once Bianca comes into his life, though, Lars slowly begins to move out in the world, participating in social activities he'd previously always shunned -- Bianca gives him the courage to reach out into the world.
Here's where you have to suspend your disbelief a bit, because pretty soon everyone in their small town has gotten in on supporting Lars in his delusion that Bianca is a real person. At first, they stare, but soon everyone is carrying on conversations with Bianca, and taking her around the town; it isn't long before Bianca has a full social calendar to keep her busy. Now, at this point in the film, you can certainly sit there shaking your head saying, "Would never, ever happen," and you might very well be right. My faith in people overall isn't so strong lately that I'd buy that a whole town would embrace a life-sized doll as a real person, but this is the kind of film that gives you a little hope for humanity.
And the funny thing is, the more people treat Bianca like a real person, the more they find their lives affected by her presence in their town, in ways they never expected. It's kind of nice, in this time when we seem to be surrounded on all sides by conflict and discontent over war and politics and religion, when in our increasingly emotionally disconnected world, people attack each other over the internet with no regard for the real person sitting on the other side of that internet connection, to sit for a couple hours in this fictional world where people care enough about another person who's not even related to them that they would go to such lengths to try to help him.
This is another Oscar-caliber performance by Gosling, and I'd be surprised not to see him get a nomination for this role. Strong turns by the rest of the cast back him up quite well; Schneider captures eloquently the anguish of the older brother, feeling for the first time the consequences of his choice to leave home and abandon Lars to be raised by their father. Clarkson, whose reliably strong performances have deservedly netted her critical acclaim and accolades, brings warmth and compassion to the role of Dagmar -- the childless doctor nurtures Lars with the motherly affection he's been starved for his entire life. Mortimer and Garner, as the other two women in Lars' life, are also solid.
The real backbone of the film, though, is Gosling's performance. Make no mistake -- although it has some funny moments, Lars and the Real Girl is not a comedy, although the marketing makes it seem as though it is. This film is heart-warming and lovely, but it's also deeply sad and tragic, and somehow Gosling captures both sides of this tale, touching both the deep sorrows and gladnesses that give the story it's texture and depth. Before Bianca comes into his life, Lars isn't really much more human than a doll himself. It's the connections we form between ourselves and others, the way we form community, whether our communities are between just two people, or between one person and an entire town, that makes us truly human. The more people interact with Lars through Bianca, the more "real" he becomes himself. In a fall season crowded with films related to war and politics, Lars and the Real Girl is a refreshing break from the same-old, same-old -- a human drama with a heartfelt story.
For another take on Lars and the Real Girl, read Monika Bartyzel's fest review from the Toronto International Film Festival.