Lars Lindstrom goes through life doing his utmost not to. Every day he negotiates his world as an obstacle course, and the obstacles are other people. The awkwardness of proximity that many people feel in a crowded elevator as they avoid eye contact with strangers and put conversations on hold is how Lars feels with anybody, anywhere. You could say he is socially maladjusted, except I’m not sure he could be called anything with “socially” in it.
Lars (Ryan Gosling, The Notebook) and his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) have both moved back home to their small Midwestern hometown following the death of their father. Gus and his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer, Match Point, Dear Frankie), who is pregnant, live in the family homestead; Lars lives in the garage apartment. The car, alas, is parked in the driveway outside, which means that Lars’s first challenge of the day is getting from the garage to the car without being ambushed in the driveway by Karin with an invitation to breakfast or supper.
As many brothers would, Gus is willing to give Lars the space to live how he wants, whether it is good for him or not. Karin, like many good-hearted women who know better than other people, isn’t willing to leave well enough alone.
It’s shocking enough when Lars unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep, of his own free will, neatly dressed and groomed. Then comes the real shocker: Lars announces that he’s met a girl. Gus and Karen are delighted by the news, and aren’t fazed when Lars explains that they met on the Internet, and that Bianca doesn’t speak much English. Oh yes, and she’s in a wheelchair.
Then Lars brings Bianca to dinner. Okay, so we hadn’t actually gotten to the real shocker yet.
It turns out that Bianca is made of plastic. She’s a lifesize doll, and while her manufacture and marketing are clearly aimed at consumers with prurient intent, Lars is interested in Bianca for other reasons entirely. Lars’s social pathology has morphed into full-fledged delusion: In his mind, Bianca is a real person. If you’re weirded out at this point, just think how Gus and Karin feel.
This might sound like the setup for another in Hollywood’s new wave of grossout/heartfelt sentimental sex comedies (“the Crude Romanticism,” to borrow a conceit from critic Stephen Whitty) like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which use raunch in part to ward off mawkishness as they go for the idealistic happy ending.
Yet somehow Lars and the Real Girl manages to be — yes — sweet and sincere without ever tipping over either into saccharine schmaltz on the one hand or grossout territory on the other. It’s a remarkable balancing act, and director Craig Gillespie and his collaborators, including the uniformly excellent cast, pull it off with grace and economy. Gosling in particular triumphs in a very difficult role; one can easily imagine his character in a very slightly different film as the butt of the filmmakers’ contempt.
Although Lars himself unpacked Bianca from the box she arrived in, his mind has begun to elide reality so as to maintain the illusion that she is a real woman. After cutting up Bianca’s food at dinner, Lars simply doesn’t notice that he is the one who eats it. Even when Gus, stunned by the unexpected new low to which his brother has sunk, tries to confront him with the facts, Lars has no ears to hear. Karin, equally taken aback by Lars’s behavior, struggles to understand and wonders how he can be helped.
Gus and Karin take Lars — and Bianca — to see the local doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April), a general practitioner who says she is also a psychologist “because when you’re that far north you have to be.” Ascertaining that Lars is functional, not violent, not schizophrenic, Dagmar recommends that Gus and Karin do the only thing they can in any case: Allow Lars his delusion, go along with it for now, until such time as he doesn’t need it any more and is ready to give it up. Dagmar also comes up with a clever subterfuge for continuing to see Lars and Bianca without acknowledging to Lars that he, not Bianca, is the patient.
In this scenario is a remarkable blend of compassion and understanding with a kind of moral realism and practical concern. Lars may feel that Bianca is a fit partner for him, but the film knows that she isn’t, whatever he thinks. There is a reason the film is called Lars and the Real Girl. Bianca may be a Real Doll™, but she isn’t a real girl. There is a real girl in the film, a coworker at Lars’s office named Margo, who as played by Kelli Garner (The Aviator) is the only girl imaginable who is both winsome and interested in Lars. For now, though, Bianca is as real a girl as Lars can handle.
Margo and a male coworker named Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) are engaged in an ongoing feud over workplace toys; she swipes his action figures, he menaces her teddy bear. The icons of childhood, like a snatch of 1 Corinthians 13 overheard at Lars’s Lutheran church (“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”), reinforce the theme of maturity and immaturity.
Lars’s issue, like Kurt’s Internet porn habit, is rooted in a form of affective immaturity, one unprepared for the mutuality of a real relationship with a real woman. (The same symptom crops up in the half-joking remarks of some of local men, one of whom cites Bianca's inability to speak as a desirable quality in a woman.)
Bianca is as real to Lars as a teddy bear to a three-year-old. But what is a normal, healthy part of a three-year-old’s social development in a grown man is a pathological dysfunction. A three-year-old with a teddy bear is practicing social interactions with a “safe” partner whose reactions are never unexpected or inscrutable. Even when three-year-olds play together, it can easily happen that there is no real shared game, and each unknowingly plays an illusory role in the other’s imagination — though here an unfortunate word or act may ruin either game or both.
Even among adolescents or adults, I think many of us have had the uncomfortable sense of talking to people who seem to be acting out a drama in which we may or may not be assigned roles, but in any case are not free to be ourselves. In such scenarios, of course, we may refuse to play — may insist on being taken on our own terms or not at all. Bianca cannot. That, of course, is why Biancas, like pornography, exist. In Lars’s case, he doesn’t want Bianca for her body, but the principle is the same. (A churchgoing Lutheran, Lars insists that Bianca sleep in the spare bedroom in the house, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.)
Lars isn’t sure what maturity is, but he suspects he hasn’t gotten there yet. “How’d you know you were a man?” he asks his older brother, almost shyly. Gus stumbles, hemming and hawing for awhile, before coming up with a pretty good answer: Being a man means doing right even when it hurts; not cheating on your woman; admitting when you’re wrong.
Gus and Karin — and eventually the whole community — come to accept Lars’s relationship with Bianca, or rather to accept Lars’s condition and Bianca’s place in it. However, the unexpected ways in which this plays out wind up challenging rather than enabling Lars’s brittle shadow play. As time goes by, like it or not, Lars begins to experience a semblance of the truth that a relationship means that everything isn’t always about you.
Only Gus balks at the prospect of going along with Lars’s delusion. “Everyone is going to laugh at him,” he protests.
“And at you,” Dagmar nods judiciously. This is good psychology and good character development, though the prediction never comes to pass. Despite a few tense moments where it looks like Lars may be in for a hard time, pretty much everyone is nothing but supportive. I don’t know what town Lars is supposed to live in, but it’s got to be the most warm-hearted community on the planet. I’m not sure the film couldn’t have benefited from a scene in which Lars had to endure at least a little cruelty.
On the plus side, the film’s warmhearted humanism extends to everyone. Gus bears the burden of the audience’s skepticism for the whole business, but he’s a decent guy, and his struggles with big-brother guilt past and present are sympathetically depicted; you can see what Karin sees in him. Incidentally, Karin is pregnant through the whole film; there’s no build‑up to a big childbirth scene. Her pregnancy is simply part of married life and love — part of a real relationship between two real warm-blooded human beings.
Almost incredibly, the theme of religiosity isn’t played for cheap laughs. The members of Lars’s Lutheran church struggle with how to respond to his issues but eventually recognize in his foibles a mirror of their own. Apart from a single scene in the church in which the pretense of Bianca’s reality really is taken too far (though only to absurdity, not sacrilege), the film almost never missteps.
Lars and the Real Girl has been compared to the popular 1950 film Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart, which I am among the minority in disliking, in part because Harvey, unlike Lars, doesn’t ask its protagonist to change. Gosling, in a New York press event, mentioned The Velveteen Rabbit as another touchstone, prompting me to observe that The Velveteen Rabbit was about how a boy who loved a toy helped it to become Real, while Lars and the Real Girl was about how a toy helped a boy who loved it to become Real.
In reality, though, it isn’t Bianca that helps Lars. What makes Lars real, like the Velveteen Rabbit, is love — not Bianca’s love, for she has none, nor Lars’s love for her, but the love of others for Lars.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.