July 6, 2017
Lars and the Real Girl – US, 2007
In Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl, there is an important scene missing, the one I refer to as the establishment. In the establishment, the audience receives valuable information about one or more characters that is then used to compare or contrast these characters, or just to make sense of events or actions that occur later on in a film. Such a scene may set up a personality flaw, establish a close or strained friendship, or explain the rules through which we should comprehend the action that follows. For example, think of the opening scene of 2009’s The Proposal, during which we get an excellent look at the pressure of a woman’s staff and their fear of making a mistake. Think of the opening scene of Blade, which establishes just what makes Blade different from other vampires, or the closing scene of Pulp Fiction, which establishes some of the motives and relationships that characters had earlier in the film. This is the kind of scene missing in Lars and the Real Girl.
To be fair, the film attempts one. In its opening scene, we watch as Lars stares out his window at the home in which his brother, Gus, and his wife, Karen, live. Karen soon emerges, and as she notices Lars through the window, he ducks away, hoping that she didn’t see him or, if she did, that she quietly goes away. The conversation that follows, if you want to call it that, is brief and filled with moments of immensely awkward silence, one person trying to start a conversation and the other trying to avoid one. The scene does its job. It establishes Lars as withdrawn, quiet, and awkward around people, which makes sense given what he does later on in the film. What it does not do, however, is explain why everyone comes to his defense later on or demonstrate why he is the object of someone’s affection.
Lars comes out of his shell during an interesting scene in which he first tantalizes his sister-in-law with news that he has found romance with a woman named Bianca and then leaves her and Gus speechless when they see that Bianca is actually a doll – not the inflatable kind, but one of those realistic, anatomically correct ones sold online, the stereotype goes, to men with abnormal fetishes or severe problems relating to members of the opposite sex. A film about that would likely be rather dark and somewhat off-putting, and I’m willing to bet that very few people are willing to go there. Rest assured then. Lars and the Real Girl keeps the relationship relatively tame. Bianca stays at Gus and Karen’s home because it isn’t proper for them to share a bed so soon in their relationship, and when they are alone, Lars is content to regale her with tales of his childhood; in his eyes, to do anything less would be uncivilized.
So Lars and the Real Girl is a G-rated version of an R-rated phenomenon, and in truth there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. However, at a time when newspapers print articles on Japanese men who prefer the company of life-like dolls than actual people and many young people find it increasingly difficult to communicate with people with words and facial expressions, it is not the film that we need. We need a film about reaching the detached and pulling back those that have become reliant upon -and confused by- cartoon fantasies, video games, and the promise of the online soul mate. Lars and the Real Girl isn’t this film.
Instead, it is one about a nice guy, the supportive townspeople he encounters, and his peculiar way of working out his problems. And that is just what the film claims Lars is doing – creating his own delusion and then working out some pretty powerful issues by resolving the delusion. As his doctor explains, “It will be over when he’d done with it.” In other words, ordering a doll online, giving it a backstory, falling in love with it, and then falling out of love with it are all just parts of one therapeutic process, just the human brain working it all out. It sounds nice; I just didn’t buy it.
This is certainly no fault of the cast. Ryan Gosling is thoroughly convincing as Lars, and Patricia Clarkson is a revelation as a family doctor who treats Lars in between her “treatments” of a very sick Bianca. Emily Mortinson and Paul Schneider are fine as Karen and Gus, and Kelli Garner is downright sweet and endearing as Margo, the co-worker with a crush on Lars. And if you accept that the town bands together to get Lars through a tough time by humoring his delusion, you are apt to find Lars and the Real Girl a pleasant comedy.
But let’s return to the missing establishment. Lars is never shown to have been a people person. He is never shown to be someone people cherished or would rally behind, and no one person utters an admission like “While Lars may be a freak, he is still our freak.” Also, nothing suggests that there was more to Lars than the quiet guy who turns down invitations to dinner or feels pain at the slightest touch. In other words, just who is Lars supposed to turn back into or be when the delusion is over? Such as explanation would justify Margo’s deep attachment to Lars and make us root for their eventual relationship. As the film is now, I kept asking myself why she liked him so much. Was it because of how he treated a mannequin, and just what does it mean if that’s the case? Sadly, the film does not explore these issues.
In the end, I liked Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a film that almost impossible to dislike entirely, especially with such a collection of extremely amiable characters. Yet it’s also a film that takes the easy road. It neither challenges the audience’s impression of the mentally ill nor gives them a new definition of normal. To be sure, the film has its heart in the right place and it has all of the ingredients of a great story. It just doesn’t know what to do with them, and so it content to play it safe. Everyone is decent, and Lars will be okay in the end. It is a family-friendly message, one that unfortunately struck me as particularly convenient. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars