MGM // 2007 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 28th, 2008
The search for true love begins outside the box.
Harlan Ellison once said -- and this is pure paraphrasing -- that there is nothing wrong with being alone; it's being lonely that's hard. No one likes to think that they are a freak among their fellow humans, unable to interaction with the species in a way that engenders love, friendship, or affection. Yet many do find themselves outsiders in a realm where reality no longer seems to guide or give. For them, being lonely is not only hard -- it's hell. One such sad sack is Lars Lindstrum. Locked up inside himself, unable to interrelate with people who seem to genuinely care for him, his only means of expression is to close off completely -- that is, until one day, his salvation arrives...courtesy of the Internet. While many see his choice of companion as some sort of sick joke, the truth is that for Lars and the Real Girl, this may be the closest thing to an emotional bond either will have.
Poor Lars Lindstrum (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson). At 27, he lives in the tattered garage of his parents' old house. With his mother long dead and his father recently passed away, it is up to his older brother Gus (Paul Schnieder, Live Free or Die Hard) to look after him. Gus is also about to become a proud papa. Yet his very pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer, The Pink Panther) can't help but worry about Lars. He seems lonely without being obvious about it, lost in his own troubled world.
One day, a large crate shows up in the driveway. It's Bianca, a human-sized figurine typically used by men to satisfy a certain partnerless urge. But Lars is not interested in his newfound companion's carnal capabilities. Instead, he seems to think she's alive, interacting with her and requesting that others treat her with the same respect they would others in the community.
Obviously troubled by this development, Gus and Karin seek the advice of local doctor and resident psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, Good Night and Good Luck). Yet her approach to Lars' issue might not be exactly what they had in mind.
At its core, Lars and the Real Girl is a movie about internal emotions made open. It's an experiment in tone taken to degrees unimagined in mainstream cinema. It offers up a hero whose so blocked off he can only relate to an inanimate piece of rubber, while surrounded on all sides by people who just want to reach out and respond. There is no smutty subtext, no discussion of what one's sex life would be like with a plastic replica of a woman. There are also no answers as to why our hero acts this way. During the psychological sessions that make up the storyline's stepping stones, there are hints and supposition, but no clear conclusions. Just like the population of the small everyday town must accept Bianca and what she represents to Lars, they must also recognize that they'll never know why the mannered manchild needs her so. Such are the unfathomable mysteries of the human heart, apparently.
Of course, the joke is also on us, the viewers. Without us really knowing it, Lars and the Real Girl effortlessly moves from amusing to solemn, forcing us to confront our own prejudices and predeterminations. We chuckle as star Gosling, all awkward gestures and personal tics, projects his naïve romantic feelings on his inanimate love while reading the real pain across his brother and sister-in-law's face. Lars' belligerent sibling (a nice turn by Paul Schneider) just wants a pill or placebo to turn his relative back to normal. Of course, he can't see that Bianca may just be that cure-all. Thankfully, he has one of the story's biggest epiphanies, realizing the role he played in sequestering the stunted man. His Karin (a lovely Emily Mortimer) sees things more simply. Whatever makes Lars happy is what's best. Of course, it would be nice if it weren't inorganic and subtexted by sleaze.
The surrounding town is, naturally, populated with dozens of idiosyncratic individuals. It wouldn't be this kind of movie otherwise. Screenwriters love to place eccentrics in the middle of other likeminded oddballs, and Lars and the Real Girl has some memorable nonconformists -- from the local hairdresser who wants to give Bianca a makeover to the matronly know-it-all who calls out the masses when they initially want to reject Lars and his new companion. This mother figure is key to the film in many ways. She represents -- indirectly -- the parent Lars barely remembers, and she also plays a prominent role in the film's last act, helping everyone deal with a sudden, sad change in events. Since many of our hero's issues seem to stem from abandonment and lack of maternal and paternal guidance, her presence acts as a buffer-from acceptance, from appreciation, from actual emotional attachments.
Perhaps most importantly, there is an actual human being who cares for Lars, a genial if slightly silly girl named Margo. Kelli Garner, in a completely unglamorous turn, shows the decency and concern in Margo. As the yin to Gosling's Method yang, she appears moments away from literally flitting off-screen. But there is also a deep-seeded need inside her awkward, overly eager character. While she's a natural match for our addled adult, how they get together -- if they do -- becomes one of the movie's more endearing elements. It also explains why something as surreal and slightly stilted as Lars and the Real Girl's premise doesn't disintegrate into sick jokes, double entendres, and other lame pornographic pretence.
In fact, this whole film is exactly the opposite of the doll's XXX reality. It's like a massive quilt fresh from the drier and fluffy as a cuddly kitten. Gosling may be pitching his performance a tad too far over into introvert mode, but he's a solid, stoic figure, a man made up of several psychological missteps...so many, in fact, that director Craig Gillespie wisely concentrates on a chosen few. Fears revolving around abandonment, childbirth, the responsibilities of being alone, and the overreaching pressure to play nice in the world of adults are constantly projected on Bianca. Indeed, if you pay very close attention to the imaginary conversations Lars with his sweetheart, the way he treats and interacts with her, they all say more than any direct confrontation. The town's reaction to his several-thousand-dollar therapy device is just the icing on an already sweet and satisfying cake.
Clarkson's role here is also unique. Unlike your typical psychologist that probes and prods, her character's style is subtle and very effective. The talks she has with Lars are more about filling in the blanks when he discusses a subject rather than prying information out of him. There is a real sense of empathy, something that gives the film a genial yet genuine gravitas. She wants her patient to open up, but not at the expense of what makes him so special. It's a shame that all therapy can't be this successful. As stated before, the idea initially plays as wildly incongruous and slightly slapstick. It's a dude dating a sex toy, after all. Still, as Lars and the Real Girl progresses, we find ourselves celebrating right along with the rest of the town. They really do love this strangely iconic figure -- and so do we.
After the crapfest that was Mr. Woodcock, Gillespie has a right to be proud, though a great deal of what he accomplishes comes directly from Nancy Oliver's Oscar-nominated script (a real treat, and much more accomplished than eventual winner Juno). Yet Lars and the Real Girl is all about tone and perception. How much you enjoy this film will definitely be a byproduct of how tuned in you are to our hero, his needs, and the unusual way he chooses to express them. You will also have to deal with some uncomfortable familial moments, a decided weirdo or two, and an entire municipality seemingly caught up in a clear case of mass hysteria. All of it feeds directly into what this magical movie is trying to accomplish. It wants to take you out of your comfort zone and make you look at life in a totally upside-down manner. After you see the world through Lars' idyllic eyes, you may never want to look at it any other way.
Since DVD is the perfect way to discover this overlooked gem, it would be nice to report that MGM took their time and delivered a stellar digital package. Well, at least from the technical perspective, they did. The small-budgeted offering looks excellent on the format, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image providing a great deal of depth and color clarity. We can pick out the subtle details in Bianca's makeup, as well as the snow-covered chill of the Canadian locations. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is given very little to do. The musical score definitely benefits from the multichannel approach, but there's not a lot of atmosphere or need for such a dynamic. The dialogue is always easy to understand, however, even when the characters are speaking in whispers.
Where this release really comes up short is in the bonus features department. The making-of material is interesting, showing how the cast came to terms with the sex surrogate, and the deleted scene is delightful, if only because it offers more of the movie's unbridled uniqueness. The "Real Doll" documentary, though, seems oddly out of place, like an ad for bestiality accompanying a version of Ice Age. A commentary track with Gillespie and the gang would have been preferable to this icky infomercial. A movie like this is all about collaboration and compromise. Information about how the notoriously testy Gosling managed to work with his co-stars and the creators is the missing element this DVD needed.
When John Lennon argued that "all you need is love," one assumes he meant it in a pejorative sense. After all, individual affection is one of the hardest commodities to come by, and it would be rather perverse of this people's champion to challenge the value of life based on how well we get on with one another specifically. In some ways, that's what he meant. In other, more discerning interpretations, he was talking about a more universal understanding and respect. The same analysis applies to Lars and the Real Girl. If an entire town can get behind an eccentric and support his attempts to find peace within himself, maybe such a strategy can be extrapolated out among the various warring factions on the planet. We're all different. We all need sympathy. How we get it should be a matter of personal (and moral) perspective. That's the main message in this solid cinematic gem.
Not guilty. Both the film and DVD deserve to be embraced by an art-starved mainstream.
Review content copyright © 2008 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scene
* "A Real Leading Lady"
* "The Real Story of Lars and the Real Girl"
* Official Site