I have seen a lot of movies over the years. I have cried over a lot of movies over the years, too, from typical tear-jerkers of the Nicholas Sparks variety to Pete’s Dragon. A movie really sells itself to me (and is, therefore, worth its price) by providing me with characters I can really empathize over. Lars and the Real Girl is one of those movies.
The back of the box sells this 2007 film as a “heartfelt comedy” written by Nancy Oliver, who also wrote several Six Feet Under episodes. That was a show I quite enjoyed, so I knew this film would be quirky. I wouldn’t slap a comedy sticker on it, though. This is a film to get very sad over. While the premise seems bizarre (and laugh-inducing), the New York Times Magazine once featured a story about a man in Japan who carries his manga printed pillow around with him everywhere and treats it like he thinks he would treat a girlfriend. There is nothing funny about that level of loneliness and the reasons why people will give themselves to inanimate objects when what they really crave is human love.
In this film, Lars (Ryan Gosling) is incredibly lonely and shy around people, especially women. He’s also very anti-social; all attempts by Karen, his sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer), to get him to share a meal with her and his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), are rebuffed. Karen is concerned by this but Gus is used to his brother’s weirdness and barely comments anymore, aside from reminding her that she owes him five bucks after that last failed attempt at getting him over for breakfast.
Lars has some kind of cubicle job and shares his space with a co-worker who is into porn and action figures. He ignores the guy as much as he can and ignores the new girl, Margo (Kelli Garner), even more, though it’s clear she keeps coming by their cubicle in the hopes that Lars will take an interest in her. One day, the co-worker shows him this website where people can design their own sex dolls and six weeks later a box arrives at the garage behind the house where Gus and Karen live. It’s Bianca, the doll about to be the first real love of Lars’ life.
Lars creates this whole back-story for Bianca: wheel-chair bound, foreign, luggage stolen, on sabbatical from a convent, therefore can she stay in the house instead of in the garage “in sin”, and give her some clothes to wear, too, please? They talk by Lars “listening” to what she’s said and paraphrasing it. Predictably, Gus is completely appalled by his brother’s apparent loss of sanity but Karen knows they’re going to have to play along with it for Lars’ sake, and try to get him some help in the process.
The help is provided in a sly way by the local doctor/psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who easily convinces Lars that Bianca has some kind of low blood pressure stress disorder thing that’s going to require weekly treatments where she’ll have to rest for a while afterwards so that will give the two of them plenty of time to talk…
What moved me so much about this film was how the town reacts to this strange relationship. People in town find all sorts of reasons to befriend Bianca and make her feel at home. She’s given a job, some volunteer shifts at the hospital and winds up on the school board eventually. In fact, the townspeople plan so much to fill Bianca’s days and nights that Lars gets very little time with her at all.
When Lars finds out that Bianca is scheduled for yet another community project the night he thinks he’ll be home playing Scrabble with her, he asks everyone to leave the room and then lights into her like a crazed boyfriend, screaming and yelling and arguing with her. Later, the church lady who had come to pick up Bianca and heard all that tears a strip out of Lars. What the hell kind of behaviour is that? She’s not going to sit around all day waiting while he works. She deserves to have a life and it’s not fair to expect her not to, yadda yadda.
What winds up funny about that is the fact that while Lars wants to pretend she’s a real person capable of doing anything, he can’t really handle the rest of the town helping with that because he feels like he’s being abandoned again and again by the only person he thinks ought to love him and be with him forever. So it’s very interesting when Dagmar learns that Bianca said no to his wedding proposal. And it’s rewarding but devastating to watch the way Lars goes through the process of leaving the doll behind so his relationships with people can move forward.
There’s a point in the film where the church deacons are meeting about Lars and his new beau and the pastor’s been asked if he’s actually going to let this sex doll come into the church. The pastor’s only reply to that is, of course, “What would Jesus do?”
It’s the mark of an adult to do all he or she can for loved ones, even when it’s hard. Gus tells Lars pretty much the same thing when Lars asks him when he knew he was a man, and it’s what the townsfolk do for Lars on the whole. They take it to an extreme, perhaps, but that’s why it’s a movie. Nobody mocks Lars to his face, either, and there are very few jokes surrounding the fact that he’s in a platonic relationship with a sex toy either. It’s all played straight and sincere and watching it, I couldn’t help but feel compassionate toward his plight. Were I one of the townspeople, I think I would have done the same things they did.