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Friday, Dec. 19, 2008
'Lars and the Real Girl'
It's about time a real doll hit town
By KAORI SHOJI
If 27-year-old Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) in "Lars and the Real Girl" had lived in another community, perhaps life would have been easier for him. As it is, the citizens of a friendly little town located in the American Midwest look upon Lars with protective tenderness.
His neighbors, his colleagues, the nice lady in the supermarket —they all worry about Lars, and understandably so. He's over-the-top shy, has a tendency to shut himself in his brother's garage (converted by Lars himself into a cozy apartment) and just not come out. Lars' brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), extend dinner invitations and encourage Lars to "get a life!" but this only serves to drive the young man further into his shell.
Then one evening Lars announces proudly that he will be bringing a girlfriend over. "She's half Brazilian, half Danish," explains Lars, and he hints at what a knockout she is. Gus and Karin are exultant, until they discover that "Bianca" — knockout that she is — is a life-size "anatomically correct" doll made entirely of silicone and plastic. Attributing Bianca's silence to a natural modesty, Lars pushes her around in a wheelchair and solicitously cuts her food into tiny pieces.
Gus and Karin are appalled, but not wishing to hurt Lars, they welcome Bianca into the family . . . sort of.
Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Nancy Oliver, who penned the popular TV series "Six Feet Under," the movie is, at first glance, a riotous, heart-warming comedy. There's a lot about the snowy landscape with neat streets, pastel-colored homes and well-meaning people that recall the Coen Brothers' "Fargo," but just as "Fargo" had hidden a dark, violent tale under a blanket of powder snow, Lars may also be concealing a goblin inside his comfortable pudgy frame.
So shy that the slightest physical contact literally brings a spasm of shuddering pain, Lars probably wished for nothing more than to be left alone. But as society (in this case the community) presses him to lead a so-called "normal" existence, as defined by the presence of a girlfriend, Lars does exactly this, albeit on his own terms. The joke is that Lars insists Bianca has religious beliefs equal to his own, and he asks Karin to put her up in the spare bedroom. Having procured this sex-doll on the Net, the one thing Lars doesn't want to do is to use Bianca for her intended purpose, and he bids her a polite good night before retiring to his garage.
Gus and Karin have a word with town psychiatrist Dagmar (an excellent Patricia Clarkson), who tells them to treat Bianca in the same way that Lars does: "Like a real woman." The whole town joins in, and soon Bianca is deluged with invitations for lunch and shopping, and enlisted for volunteer work. She becomes so popular that Lars is jealous and irritated by the lack of "quality time" (i.e., nice fireside chats) with his girlfriend. Of course, everyone understands.
"Lars and the Real Girl" is a quirky exploration of modern-day themes, one of which is relationship harassment. Some people would rather not get close to other people, and often there's no specific reason. Lars is like that too, and though the story briefly touches on a taciturn father and a mother who had died giving birth to Lars, there's no lengthy psychobabble to explain why Lars would rather be, well, Lars, and not like his brother.
Sometimes you can see on his face a kind of sad desperation as if he's pining to move to a planet where dating and sex don't exist, and aloneness wasn't viewed as a preliminary symptom of mental meltdown. And strangely enough, Bianca seems to understand Lars' angst and dilemma. Scenes of the two of them together show how their "relationship" is actually working — for lack of a better term.
Gosling, who has carved out a career playing sweet and good-looking but oddly dysfunctional loners (see 2004's "The Notebook" for his groundbreaking performance), fine tunes Lars' personality to create an intriguing blend of bland prairie innocence tinged with a certain defiant cynicism.
"Lars and the Real Girl" could ultimately be described as a rom-com, but a kind of oily queasiness oozes from its surface: Any minute, Lars could smilingly walk into his garage, open his trusted toolbox and reveal a storage of blood-encrusted murder weapons. But that would be another movie.