MGM // 2007 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // April 20th, 2011
Sometimes you find love where you'd least expect it.
There's a thin line between sentiment and sentimentality. Lars and the Real Girl is refreshingly free of syrupy and manipulative Hollywood-style heartstring tugging. Instead, it's sweet, funny, and a bit edgy. The film radiates a real human warmth that is sadly lacking in many modern films.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson) is a quiet, withdrawn office worker. He lives in a converted garage behind a house owned by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover), a house originally owned by their deceased parents. Gus' wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island), tries desperately to forge a bond between Lars and his brother. Early in the movie, the very pregnant Karin trots behind Lars as he tries to dodge into his house to avoid her dinner invitation. Accidentally tripping into Lars and knocking him down, she pins him on the snowy ground until he relents and agrees to the family get-together. The resulting dinner date is polite, but not at all successful.
Meanwhile, on the job, Lars ignores the clumsy but earnest flirtations of Margo (Kelli Garner, The Aviator), while an immature co-worker with whom Lars shares an office cubicle finds a website that manufactures and sells "Love Dolls," anatomically correct artificial sex companions designed to the buyer's specifications. He displays his salacious find to a seemingly disinterested Lars. Six weeks later a large crate is delivered to Lars, who proceeds to brush his teeth, comb his hair, don a new sweater, and generally spruce himself up for his first meeting with his new girlfriend.
Just as Karin is about to give up on Lars he appears on her doorstep and happily announces he has met a wonderful woman named Bianca, a Danish, South American missionary confined to a wheelchair. He would like her to stay in a bedroom in the house rather than his tatty old garage apartment. Bianca, much to Gus' and Karin's chagrin and astonishment, turns out to be a Love Doll. After their initial shock, they convince Lars to take Bianca to their doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), for a physical. Dagmar is a psychologist as well as a medical doctor, and manages to draw Lars out with informal meetings as she pretends to treat Bianca for low blood pressure and an unspecified malady.
The rest of the film depicts how Lars' circle of workers and acquaintances benignly go along with his delusions hoping to effect a cure, although some of them are caught up in the play acting and eventually use Bianca as a mirror to reflect and reinforce their own personalities.
The story of Lars and the Real Girl sways gently back and forth in tone. Are we watching a light drama, a tragedy, or a comedy? Will the script maintain some level of dignity or descend into adolescent vulgarity? It's a tricky balancing act that constantly teases the audience -- at least throughout the first half of the film. Events could easily send the movie careening into a leering farce or a smutty black comedy. As the movie progresses, it hews closely to a realistic mixture of humor and sadness. The cynically inclined will roll their eyes at the film's optimistic depiction of the decent and caring Minnesotans, but people do, after all, do the right thing sometimes. The most fantastical element of the movie is Lars' delusion.
The so-called delusion from which Lars suffers may be unique in the annals of abnormal psychology. Realistically, I doubt that anyone could suffer such a mental breakdown without being psychotic or seriously schizophrenic, but it is the one touch of fantasy, a mental form of magical realism, that the movie asks us to accept. Lars is introverted and detached, suffers terribly from a fear of physical contact, but he does not hallucinate or mumble gibberish. He is intelligent and quite aware of what is going on around him except for his insistence that his doll is a real woman. He pours his dreams and fears into the vessel of Bianca, which allows him to project his feelings into the real world in a way he never could without his female simulacrum.
Fantasy or not, the movie would have collapsed without strong performances. All the actors are superb. There are simply no weak players, even in the minor supporting roles. After watching the movie, I could not imagine anyone playing Lars but Gosling, with his perfect mixture of sweetness, timidity, and buried anger. As for Schneider playing Lars' brother, the comic looks of incredulity that Gus musters are wonderful to behold. His portrayals of sibling rivalry, brotherly affection, guilt, and vulnerability are spot on. Really, the whole cast goes above and beyond.
Now to the less-than-sterling transfer. Why a Blu-ray would include edge enhancement is beyond me. Ringing is prominent on higher contrast dark against light scenes. Even on a DVD, the artificial sharpening noticeably degrades the picture on a large screen TV. There is no reason at all to "sharpen" a 1080p transfer unless the print was sourced from an HD transfer used for the DVD, which is possibly the case. The colors are slightly better than what I remember from the standard-definition transfer, but the dull winter landscape is predominately filmed in soft gray and brown hues. Partially because the cinematography is naturally soft and muted, it does not benefit greatly from high definition; however, it's slightly better than the DVD, particularly in close-ups. The dialogue and sound effects are clear and clean. There is nothing wrong with the mostly front loaded DTS HD sound, but it's hardly a workout for your surround system. The unobtrusive score by David Torn does benefit from the high quality encode, with an airy separation of orchestral instruments that is not achievable in the compressed Dolby format. In sum, not a bad Blu-ray, but the video could and should have been better.
There aren't many extras, but they're worth a view. The single deleted scene, under a minute long, depicts a clothed Lars in the bathtub with Bianca. It's mild, but I can understand why it was cut. The other extra of note is a short feature that includes comments from the director and actors; their genuine enthusiasm for the project is palpable. There is also a bit of information about the real business that manufactured the "Love Dolls" for the film.
Rebuttal Witnesses I shudder to imagine how this movie would have turned out with, say, Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler behind the camera. Thank the film deities that Nancy Oliver's sensitive and intelligent script was treated with great respect by director Craig Gillespie and all the actors. Unfortunately, this movie did not do well at the box office. That's no surprise considering its potentially off-putting subject matter and the fact that it was aimed squarely at mature audiences.
This delightful film deserves a much better reception than it received theatrically. I hope this disc will catch the attention of those who missed its DVD incarnation.
If you already have the DVD and cash is tight, I would pass on this release as an upgrade. The Blu-ray offers only a marginal improvement in picture quality. If you don't own the standard def, a Blu-ray purchase is the way to go, as there is an increase in detail in close-up shots, somewhat better color overall, and a non-compressed soundtrack.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scene