Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Craig Gillespie

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson, Nancy Beatty, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

MPAA Rating:  (for some sex-related content)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 10/12/07 (limited); 10/19/07 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Screened at the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival

Lars and the Real Girl is erupting with compassion and humanity.  And it's a comedy. That co-stars a "love doll" named Bianca. There's been a mild resurgence of genuine comedy this year that shows just how lame the juvenile, less-than-sitcom fare we've had to endure along with it really is. The film was directed by Craig Gillespie, a television commercial veteran (who gave us one of those lame examples Mr. Woodcock a month ago), and it just shows one should never dismiss someone based on past career moves. Gillespie's sense of comic timing and focus on character help to elevate a strange-concept film into a genuine delight of heart. He's also working with a robust script by Nancy Oliver, another TV veteran, which has strong, smart, observant, and compassionate characters, and a cast that fits their respective roles like a well-worn glove. There could be plenty of opportunity here for cheap jokes at the expense of the central character, but Oliver's script treats the situation for exactly what it is: a sad, lonely meditation on the pains of the past, and the way a strong, supporting group of loving people can help one move past them. After they get over the initial shock of a grown man falling in love with a doll, of course.

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) lives alone in the garage of his parents' old Wisconsin home. His mother died during childbirth, and his father passed away a few years ago. The house is occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus' pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Karin tries with all possible effort to include Lars in their lives, inviting him over for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but Lars makes excuses. This morning, he has church. A choirgirl and co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner) has eyes for him, but even when fellow parishioner Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) gives him a flower to give to a special girl, Lars tosses it aside when Margo appears. He skips breakfast (Gus and Karin make bets about it), and the next day at work, co-worker Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) tells him in passing about a website that offers life-size, anatomically correct dolls. Lars returns home, Karin literally tackles him to have dinner, and Gus talks to him about Karin's concerns of Lars' solitude. Lars says he's fine; Gus agrees. Their dad was like that, too. End of story. Six weeks later, a large crate is delivered to the house, and Lars has some exciting news for Karin and Gus: He has a guest.

They met on the internet, he tells them. She doesn't speak much English, is confined to a wheelchair, and is very religious. Karin, so thrilled with the news, says she can stay in the house. That's when the shock begins, and Lars is sitting in the living room with a life-size, anatomically correct (Karin checks) doll named Bianca next to him on the couch. Lars is convinced the doll is real and holds conversations with it. Gus is convinced his brother is crazy, and his first thought is toward a hospital. Karin, the sweetheart that she is, doesn't want that for her brother-in-law. So she puts Bianca up in Lars and Gus' mother's old room and tells Lars that Bianca should see Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the town's doctor who also happens to be a psychologist (It is Wisconsin, after all). "What will people think," Gus worries. "We can't worry about that," Karin wisely replies. Dagmar eases a bit of their troubles when she diagnoses Lars, not with schizophrenia, but with a delusion, and she agrees that they should all go along with it. Gus immediately wants the good doctor to fix his brother, but Dagmar tells them that sometimes mental illness is not a debilitation but a way for people to work things out within themselves.

By this point, Oliver has established these characters—their fears, their capacity for kindness, and their intelligence—so firmly it's impossible not to get caught up in their affairs. The whole town stands behind Lars' struggle with his delusion after Mrs. Gruner not-so-subtly calls to mind the concept "judge not lest ye be judged," and the reverend (R.D. Reid) asks the vital question: What would Jesus do? Karin attempts to make Lars understand that the town's acceptance has nothing to do with Bianca and everything to do with how much everyone loves him. Gus continues his denial, attempting to convince himself that it's not his fault, and worrying that others will laugh at Lars ("And you," Dagmar insightfully points out). Margo continues her mad crush on Lars and even picks up a new boyfriend, an act that brings out a mild jealous streak in our hero. Dagmar and Lars have therapy sessions while Bianca recovers from her treatment for low blood pressure, and we start to understand the root of his problem when he tells the doctor that having a baby is a dangerous thing. Lars himself shows his kindheartedness in his attention and affection for Bianca, a delusion he has made basically helpless just to care for her and one that has risen above the loss of her own parents—a trait Lars says he admires.

The backbone of the delusion is obvious, but Oliver doesn't push the point. Its relevance comes naturally from the characters, and the casting is perfect. Ryan Gosling plays Lars with a terminal awkwardness—a shyness brought about by years spent alone and without much human contact outside of a grieving father. More than just a series of tics, Gosling's performance shows the internal discomfort of living a deep-rooted pain that Lars can barely understand. Emily Mortimer radiates a truly loving personality, and Paul Schneider is sympathetic as a guy who just wants his brother to be normal. Gus' heart-to-heart with Lars about what makes someone a man and the moment he fears that he is cause of Lars' problem are quite touching. Patricia Clarkson displays a great empathy and intelligence as Dagmar. The real discovery here is Kelli Garner, who is utterly adorable as Margo. There's a moment where Lars invites her to go bowling, and Garner's giddy, unbridled excitement is delightful.

I fear I have made the film sound too serious for its own good, but while Oliver and Gillespie do take the material seriously, they are also meticulous in not playing up the comic elements. They are there in spades, but just as the script slyly brings out the real crux of the characters' essences, the comedy is the same. Lars and the Real Girl is a genuinely funny, warm, and surprisingly insightful work that stands among the best comedies of—what I hope to be—a year of revival.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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