Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl is a comedy which tells the story of an introverted, emotionally backward loner (Ryan Gosling, in bad knitwear and anorak) who believes a sex doll is real and introduces her to the local community as his girlfriend. It all sounds gorgeous, as if it is going to be wonderfully distasteful — how could it not be? — but, disappointingly, it just isn’t nearly distasteful enough. This is a shame, particularly if you have been waiting a long time for a decent film featuring bad knitwear and a sex doll, as I have.
It is set in some unnamed American Mid-western town and opens in church on a Sunday with the preacher saying that there is only one true law: ‘Love each other.’ Is this telegraphing what is to come? Yes. You won’t realise it at the time but I’m telling you now: it is. Anyway, we then follow Lars to his home, which is a garage attached to the house where his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) lives with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Gus and Karin are good, giving, caring people who worry about Lars living all alone in the garage in that bad knitwear, so when he announces he has a girlfriend they are thrilled. The scene where Lars first introduces his ‘girlfriend’ is magic and is funny. The couples sit on opposite sofas with Gus and Karin looking totally stunned while Lars, beaming away, explains that she is called Bianca and is half-Brazilian, half- Danish and hopes to learn English. This is not a film about sex, by the way. The doll is ‘anatomically correct’ but at no point does Lars explore this particular selling point. Lars is chaste and innocent and, anyway, he and Bianca are saving themselves for marriage. She is very religious.
Now we have the set-up, the questions naturally become: what is in this delusion for Lars? And how will the community react? Happily, the local family practitioner, Dr Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), is also a perceptive psychologist spilling with folksy wisdom, so instead of advising that Lars should be dispatched to the loony bin forthwith, she encourages everyone to play along. Soon Bianca is not just accepted by the community, but integrated into it. She is carted to social events, elected to the hospital committee and treated to a new hair-do at the salon. The priest smiles indulgently on Lars, as do all the old ladies. It seems like a sizeable town and the fact that no one, at any point, not even in passing, says, ‘Lars, Bianca is a sex doll and you’re nuts,’ seems wholly fantastical. (A child would say something, surely. Children are frighteningly truthful.) In turn, you may wish to play along with this touching, warm-hearted vision of American magnanimity, but I could not. I wish they’d strung Bianca up, actually. It would certainly have hotted things up a little.
As for Lars and his absolute horror of proper human contact, Dr Dagmar eventually gets to the bottom of this in that linear way which actually puts this indie film firmly in the Hollywood mainstream: i.e., it’s all down to an early childhood trauma. Here it is, see. And now we’ve located it, shall we get over it and be all normal? Oh, please. How many Ordinary Peoples does a cinema-goer need? The ‘Real Girl’, by the way, is Margo, who works in the same office as Lars, and who may or may not be able to take over where Bianca leaves off. What do you think?
As a comedy, there are a few good moments, but much is tiresomely repetitive, relying as it does on people’s reactions when they first meet Bianca or on panning out to see Bianca amid real folk: Bianca, with hymnal propped in hands, at church; that sort of thing. Still, it is generally well played, particularly by Schneider and Mortimer, yet possibly not by Gosling.
Although he has had a brilliant career so far, his Lars comes over as more sweet chump than damaged, lost soul, and his various conceits — the goofy, not-quite-there smile; his squeezed-up eyes when he goes off into a reverie — often seem to be just what they are: conceits. His is a Peter Sellers-in-Being There performance, which is fine, I suppose, except this is a film where the main character should be hurting. In short, Lars and the Real Girl not only wimps out but has also, at its heart, a fake doll that may be the least fake thing in it.