LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Running time 106 minutes
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Nancy Oliver
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider
I happened to have seen Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl, from a screenplay by Nancy Oliver, comparatively cold, which is to say that I usually catch the movies I am going to review long after the minutely detailed coming attractions and the seemingly endless media buzz have effectively eliminated all the elements of surprise and suspense. Not this time, however. Having been squeezed into the American premiere of Lars and the Real Girl at the Paris Theater, I arrived early enough to escape most of the hubbub of klieg lights and paparazzi at the entrance, and made my way past rows and rows of reserved seat placards down to about the third row of the auditorium, where I waited patiently with my free bag of popcorn and free bottled water for the festivities to begin late, as usual. This is one of the reasons I try to avoid premiere screenings. Another is the ego-deflating lack of interest in me by the paparazzi, which goes back to a traumatic memory of the 1964 Mar Del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina, an event I attended in the company of some big stars on the American delegation. There were hordes of star-crazed Argentinians eager for just a glimpse of the big celebrities. When they looked up at my face, they yelled almost in unison, “NADA, NADA!”
Anyway, before Lars started, one of the film’s producers came to the front of the auditorium to advise the audience that amid the cruelty and violence in the world and on the screen, the film we were about to see was all about kindness and generosity, after which he introduced the director, Greg Gillespie, who saluted by name all the individuals in the cast and the crew. And then the film began with Lars (Ryan Gosling) looking pensively out a frosty window at the house next door, from which emerged still in her night clothes an attractive young woman, who I much later learned was his sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer). After Lars very reluctantly opens the door, she invites him to have breakfast with her and her husband, Gus (Paul Schneider), who I learned later had virtually adopted Lars after the death of their father, with whom Lars had been living well into his adulthood.
For his part, Lars seems to shy away from both Karin and her invitation. What I had perceived at first as a wistful gaze gradually degenerated into a demented grin of terminal embarrassment. Is Lars retarded or deranged in some way? And why is he named Lars, and where is this wintry locale supposed to be? The eventually obtained program notes said vaguely a “sleepy Midwestern town they’ve grown up in [and in which] they currently reside.” It is no surprise to learn (also from the production notes) that the movie was shot primarily in the small town of Whitevale, just east of Toronto, where the Lindstrom (that’s their last name, though it’s never really used) house was located.
As it turned out, Lars is living in his brother’s garage for some unexplained reason. Yet Lars drives his own car to work every morning and shares a cubicle with a male co-worker who looks at porn on his office computer, while Lars disapprovingly concentrates only on office business. So clearly here we are in the present, technologically speaking, and all we know for sure is that Lars finds it hard to be around other people. Hence, when a new worker is hired by this nondescript firm, and the new employee turns out to be a pretty and flirtatious girl named Margo (Kelly Gardner), Lars makes it abundantly clear that he is not all interested in drifting into an office romance.
As I sat there pondering what was going on, a delivery of a very large rectangular box is made to Lars’s garage. For the first time in the movie, Lars is smiling with genuine anticipation as he uncharacteristically invites himself to dinner with Karin and Gus. Suddenly ripples of laughter swept through the auditorium as if some people knew in advance what was going to happen. The camera starts at one side of the dinner table showing Karin and Gus with baffled expressions directed at what is on the other side. More audience laughter. Cut to a proudly smiling Lars, and next to him is seated a life-size doll he has ordered from eBay.
I simply couldn’t laugh, though I was obviously supposed to, because I was both too surprised and too puzzled. So this was the big joke? A man in love with a doll, literally? This was the “real girl” of the title? Now, if you read this or anything at all about the film before you see it, there is no danger that you will be surprised as I was. Whether you will find this all that funny is another question.
Of course, there is possibly a mock pornographic subtext of the sex-toy variety involved in this conceit, one that is dispelled at the outset by Lars’s prudish insistence that Bianca, as he calls her, is too religious to sleep in the same room with Lars in their unmarried state. So Karin and Gus have to put Bianca to bed in their spare guest room. Lars explains further that Bianca is a Danish-Brazilian missionary, and was crippled in an accident, for which Lars has purchased her a wheelchair.
O.K., so where do we go from here? As the screenwriter, Ms. Oliver, a former writer and producer of the much acclaimed television series Six Feet Under, explains in an interview with Margy Rochlin in The New York Times Arts and Leisure section of Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007, “It was a ‘What if?’ thing. Like, ‘What if we didn’t treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?’”
What, indeed? After the revelation of Lars’ bizarrely elective affinity spreads through the closely knit churchgoing community, the entire town responds with a compassion and understanding Ms. Rochlin aptly describes as “Capraesque,” by treating Bianca as if she were a real girl with whom their universally loved Lars was smitten.
Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the town’s chief physician and psychologist at the hospital, agrees to treat Bianca for her imaginary ailments as a way of indirectly treating Lars for his mental disorder. There is not a single crack of doubt or disbelief in the town’s massive wall of Biancatude. Lars and Bianca attend church services with the cheerfully benign blessings of Reverend Bock (R.D. Reid).
It is as if everyone was walking on eggshells for almost the entire length of the movie. But under Mr. Gillespie’s admirably directed seriousness of tone, the performers, particularly Mr. Gosling, Ms. Mortimer, Mr. Schneider, Ms. Clarkson, Ms. Gardner and Mr. Reid, never miss a beat as they fashion a charming fable out of a potentially disastrous premise about the best way to treat the infinite varieties of mental illness. If only the whole world were as sweetly homogenous as the idyllic community of Lars and the Real Girl.