November 1, 2007

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Lars and the Real Girl (PG-13)
A sweet but addled young man buys himself a plastic girlfriend in the quirky and slightly disturbing Lars and the Real Girl, a movie by Nancy Oliver, who has several episodes of Six Feet Under to her credit.

Which explains a little something about the “quirky and slightly disturbing.”

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a shy young man living in a small town who, each day, offers up the barest bones of communication with others. He shares ownership of his late father’s house with his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’ wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) but lives in a garage apartment. Maybe it’s because Karin is pregnant (Lars’ mother died, we infer, during childbirth) or maybe it’s because he’s a 27-year-old who lives in his brother’s garage and says about 15 words per day, but Lars seems to Karin to be getting stranger and more insular. Gus brushes off her worries until one day a spiffied-up Lars comes to their door and announces that he has a guest. She’s a foreign girl he met on the Internet who is in a wheelchair and just religious enough to feel uncomfortable staying with Lars by himself. Can they come to the house for dinner and can she stay the night?, Lars asks Gus and Karin.

Gus and particularly Karin are delighted and rush to clean up the house. Cut to a shocked Gus and Karin sitting in the living room talking to “Bianca,” Lars’ new girlfriend, who also happens to be a pouty-lipped life-size doll. In the movie’s opening scenes, we see Lars’ cubicle-mate at work pondering the purchase of such a “companion,” so we know what Gus and Karin guess, that Bianca is a very expensive, particularly life-like sex toy. To Lars, however, she’s a half-Brazilian, half-Swedish former missionary experiencing life and whose wheelchair and clothes were stolen during her journey. He asks Karin if Bianca can borrow some of her clothes and, after Bianca is comfortably tucked away in the guest room, Karin and Gus suggest that perhaps Bianca could also benefit from some medical attention from the local general practitioner who also happens to be a psychologist. And maybe Lars would like to come to?

Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) tells Karin and Gus that Lars doesn’t appear to have some major new mental illness, just a low-level whatever-he’s-always-had plus a new delusion. The delusion, she said, will go away when he doesn’t need it anymore. Best just to go with it, she tells them.

Karin is initially more understanding than Gus but eventually Gus puts up with the ribbing at work and the stares from the community and even helps Karin to convince the church to let Bianca attend services. (The skeptical members of the congregation are more or less won over by the minister asking the argument-topping question “what would Jesus do?”) Slowly, the small community — which seems to have a soft spot for the strange Lars anyway — accepts Bianca as just another member of the town. At a party, the girls compliment her hair. While pushing her through the mall, Lars is approached by a clothing shop worker who offers Bianca a job modeling three days a week. Soon, Bianca is also visiting the sick and reading to kids. When Lars gets mad because Bianca had evening plans without him, one of the other women in the town tells him that Bianca has her own life to live.

And, were it not for his need for Bianca, Lars might have his own life to live too. The quiet Margo (Kelli Garner) has the hots for Lars and we get the sense that, if it didn’t involve having to actually talk to her for more than two minutes, Lars might like hanging out with Margo as well.

Lars is very sweet, the townsfolk are very nice and Karin and Gus are good people. None of this stops his rather exaggerated delusion from seeming far more aw-shucks, no-crazier-than-the-rest-of-us quirky than the movie seems to want us to treat it. It’s not just that Lars is dragging this doll around town — he has private conversations with her and is even spurned by her when he asks her to marry him. This is far more involved than the average three-year-old’s imaginary friend and yet the movie treats it as just a little too cutesy. It strains the credibility of the movie that everybody in this town is so very understanding.

Convince yourself to suspend disbelief long enough to get over this hurdle and there’s plenty to enjoy here. Ryan Gosling gives a solid performance as a deeply sad and scared young man. He never knew his mother and yet it seems he’s never gotten over her death. Gus finds himself increasingly torn up by his brother’s pretending and begins to drown in guilt — our father was too sad and I shouldn’t have left Lars to grow up alone with him, Gus tells Karin. I believe Gus’ anguish and Lars’ newfound happiness with Bianca. The actors manage to find the funny in their roles (Gosling brilliantly delivers a throwaway line about Bianca being elected to the school board that more or less made the movie for me) without giving up the underlying heartbreak or turning it into the schmaltzy kind of performance that I can only describe as Robin Williamsy. And, while Lars & the Real Girl is quirky, it’s never saccharin. From their unglamorous clothes to their “everybody has some problem” no-nonsense attitudes, the characters feel real. Get past the gimmick of Lars & the Real Girl and you’ll find a movie full of thoughtful and occasionally touching observations about family, adulthood and community. B

Rated PG-13 for some sex-related content. Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by MGM Distribution.