If the legendary Frank Capra had ever opted to make a movie about a young man who “falls in love” with a sex doll, it might have been a lot like Lars and the Real Girl—and that’s both this quirky indie comedy’s blessing and its curse. Like a Capra picture, Lars requires a certain mind-set: one that views the world as a nicer place than it generally seems. And also like a Capra picture, Lars is fairly shameless in its manipulation of the viewer to achieve that end. Truthfully, though, would it be possible to craft a film in which the viewer comes to care about the fate of a life-size doll and not have it be manipulative? Call me skeptical, but I don’t think so.
Despite its deliberately outré premise, the movie is at heart a pretty traditional affair—all the way to its utterly inevitable resolution. The movie telegraphs where it’s going early on and could rightly be called predictable, but it’s a predictability born of the fact that it’s the only resolution it could have and still retain its identity. Having said that Lars is traditional, I should pause to note that it is not traditional in any reactionary sense. The values it espouses are neither hidebound, narrow-minded nor awash in that kind of peculiar nostalgia people often develop for a world that never actually existed. The family and community values on display here aren’t creepy throwbacks to some “simpler” time, but rather ones grounded in conditionless caring, where understanding replaces judgment. In this regard, Lars is sneakily subversive.
Ryan Gosling stars as Lars, an unhappy, withdrawn young man living in the garage apartment of his brother Gus’ (Paul Schneider) house. He’s not wholly dysfunctional. He holds down a job and is accepted by his coworkers—one of whom, Margo (Kelli Garner, Thumbsucker), is actually stuck on him. Gus seems fairly oblivious to Lars’ state of mind, but it worries Gus’ wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), who is constantly trying to bring her brother-in-law out of his shell to no avail. This changes, however, when Lars wants to bring over his girlfriend—one he found on the Internet. At first, his family is delighted—until they learn that said girlfriend, Bianca, wasn’t just found on the Internet, but ordered on it. She’s an anatomically correct, somewhat trashy looking, definitely tartly dressed “love doll.” But Lars isn’t interested in her for sexual purposes. In fact, he’s looking for his family to put her up because it would be improper for Bianca to stay with him. In his mind, the doll is a real girl—and a paraplegic missionary in the bargain.
On the advice of a doctor (Patricia Clarkson), Lars’ family goes along with his delusion and manages to persuade most of the town and his coworkers to do so, too. Before long, Bianca becomes a strangely inactive-active part of the community. People seem to respond to her fabricated goodness (meaning Lars’ ideas of goodness) and even begin to enjoy dealing with her. This becomes most pronounced when Gus is obviously disappointed that Lars has decided to take charge of putting Bianca to bed at night. Of course, the underlying meaning in all of this is that the display of affection and acceptance is really directed at Lars, who starts freeing himself from his self-imposed exile.
This might all sound far-fetched and unbelievable, but the truth is that it works more often than it doesn’t—thanks in no small part to the central performances of Gosling, Mortimer, Schneider, Clarkson and Garner. I’m not sure that any of these accomplished performers have ever been any better than they are here. Their performances truly bring the film—and Bianca—to life. I’m even ready to forgive director Craig Gillespie for having made Mr. Woodcock (though I’m not ready to forget the fact just yet). There’s simply no connection between that film’s crass stupidity and the gentle humor on display here.
One word of advice, though: Do not go to Lars expecting an outrageous comedy. You’ll be disappointed if you do. Oh, there are laughs—one terrific one involving the school board (you’ll know it when you hear it)—but they’re mostly quiet laughs, and they’re all tinged with a kind of humanity the movies could use more of. Rated PG-13 for some sex-related content.