Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review - Lars and the Real Girl

There are many stories you could tell about a lonely man and his sex doll, but you might not expect a warm comedy with a Capra-esque sense of uplift to be fashioned from such a tale.
Lars and the Real Girl, however, manages to be just that, navigating a tricky path with an assurance that makes us believers in a pretty far-fetched scenario. I must admit, the film offered up numerous plot points that challenged my willingness to swallow the tale whole, but the approach taken by the filmmakers and extremely talented cast won me over, and by the end of the film, even I had come to care a little for the plastic doll at the centre of the story.

One of the prime factors in the audience's suspension of disbelief is the lead performance from Ryan Gosling. He plays Lars, a sweet but pathologically shy loner who lives in a converted garage, just a few yards away from the house where his brother Gus lives with his pregnant wife Karin (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer giving excellent performances that are destined to be overlooked). Karin and Gus frequently attempt to include Lars in their lives, but he shrinks away whenever anyone tries to reach out to him, and that includes his attractive co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner), whose affection for him is palpable. Then, one day, Lars shocks everyone by turning up at his brother's door and proudly announcing that he now has a girlfriend named Bianca, who is currently sitting in his garage. "Everyone's doing that these days" Karin exclaims when Lars says he met Bianca over the internet, but not like this. Bianca is a life-size, anatomically correct model known as a Real Doll, and Lars appears to be completely in love with her.

Our first sighting of Bianca is a treat. The film cuts from the delighted, stunned expression on Gus and Karin's faces to their looks of dismay as Lars sits on their couch next to his girlfriend. Lars patiently explains that Bianca is from Brazil, she doesn't speak much English, she's confined to a wheelchair, and his hosts can only watch with mounting horror as he carefully cuts up her vegetables and engages in one-way discussions with her. She's also a devout Christian, he claims, and therefore she'll sleep in Gus' spare room rather than sharing a bed with Lars. Bianca might be a sex doll, but this is a strictly chaste relationship.

That's not such an implausible notion. I remember seeing a documentary a couple of years ago examining this phenomenon, and while the interviewees do use the dolls for their intended purpose, it was clear that for many the sense of companionship they offered was just as important. It gave these men a relationship they could control, and that's what it does for Lars, someone who seems physically incapable of dealing with other people in a normal way. After taking on roles like
The Believer and Half Nelson, this might be seen as a move towards lighter fare for Ryan Gosling, but it shouldn't be seen as a lesser performance for that. Gosling's display is detailed and full of careful observations, his movements and strained gestures expressing the torment of a man who feels physical discomfort at the very thought of human contact (he's terrified by Karin's frequent attempts to hug him). Gosling plays Lars straight and with complete sincerity, and that's why he earns our empathy.

The same can be said of the picture as a whole – first-time screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie take this wacky premise and play it as straight as possible. There isn't a hint of irony or condescension in the film's depiction of its characters, and the filmmaker's own conviction invites us to go along with the story even when it takes us into even less credible territory. When Gus and Karin ask the local doctor (a typically astute performance from Patricia Clarkson) for her opinion on Lars' delusion, she insists that everyone should indulge him and let the situation develop in its own natural way. So, Bianca is treated as one of the family, and soon she's a popular figure in the community, with everyone rallying around Lars and inviting his girlfriend to join the local church, attend parties, and help out at the local school. This is about the point where
Lars and the Real Girl almost comes off the rails, with an overdose of indie-movie whimsy on the cards at every narrative turn, but, again, the sense of belief everyone onscreen seems to have in this scenario encourages us to buy into it too.

For a film built around such a slim premise,
Lars and the Real Girl is too long, and the central character's final emergence from his shell struck me as a little pat (although I liked the visual metaphor Gillespie employed in the background of the picture; the bleak winter weather passing as Lars himself gradually thaws). But Lars and the Real Girl is genuinely funny, with Gosling displaying flawless comic timing among his myriad abilities, and superbly acted by all; and it deserves attention for the way it takes its potentially one-joke idea into a more interesting and thoughtful direction than anticipated. It's a true oddity, but the filmmakers' commitment to telling their own story is admirable, and a picture could have been a trivial fairytale, ends up feeling like something beguiling, touching and real.