Film Reviews

Lars and the Real Girl Craig Gillespie

Rating - 6/10

Scholar William David Barillas has argued that in the popular imagination of countless individuals, America’s Midwestern states have come to represent “the essence of Americanism.” For a generation of readers in the early 20th century, America’s heartland became synonymous with America itself. The writings of Booth Tarkington, Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather each aided in nurturing and projecting the Midwest as America’s pastoral land: a place where the ills of urban industry met the naturalistic wilderness of the plains. Dotted in-between metropolises and farm lands resided the simple provincial townships, which have become the idealized embodiment of rural, small town America.

In postwar cinema, America’s Heartland has morphed into an entirely different entity. The literary romanticism associated with the region has since altered into something decidedly stranger and more offbeat. In films such as Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), America’s Heartland is represented as an area cluttered with good-hearted, oddball characters, culturally insular towns and eccentric situations. This trend continues in Lars and the Real Girl (2007).   

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Lars Lindstrom, a reclusive, church-going man who resides in a converted garage outside his childhood home. The home is now owned by Lars' brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). Highly unreceptive to social contact, Lars resists the romantic overtures of kooky office employee Margo (Kelli Garner) and refuses Karin’s invitations to eat an evening meal in her kitchen.
After hearing a nearby employee discuss the latest gadget offered by an online sex toy store, Lars promptly orders a life-size doll, which he infers is a living human being. Her name is Bianca and Lars has a well-documented back-story for her. She comes from Brazilian and Danish stock, is a shy missionary and recently had her wheelchair stolen. Due to their shared Christian beliefs, Lars proposes Bianca lives in Karin and Gus’ spare room. The couple reluctantly acquiesces to Lars’ choice, but soon turns to a local physician (Patricia Clarkson) in order to try to find a remedy for Lars’ situation.
Written by Six Feet Under contributor Nancy Oliver and helmed by Mr. Woodcock director Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl is yet another entry in American independent cinema’s current indulgence in heart-tugging whimsy. With his retrograde sense of dress and preference for solitude, Lars is throughout the film the talk of the town. Nobody really understands Lars or has actually ever tried to help him. In spite of that, almost all of the community’s wholesome townsfolk are fascinated by their lonely, yet nice local boy.
Lars may appear sweet, reticent and innocent on the outside, but hardly anybody in the film knows or questions Lars’ mental and emotional states. Moreover, nor do Gillespie and Oliver. There are vague hints that Lars may have possibly been (sexually) abused by his father, or that the mustached protagonist is haunted by the death of his mother during Lars’ birth. Either way, nobody seems to be sure of Lars’ past; even his own brother, who abandoned Lars as an adolescent due to disagreements with their father, fails to comprehend him.
Lacking any knowledge of Lars’ psychological motivations and queries, the filmmakers take a massive risk in Lars and the Real Girl by trusting the audience will accept the title character as he is. The gamble unfortunately rarely pays off. Certainly, director Craig Gillespie does his best to endear the audience to the film’s characters and situations. His approach toward Bianca is taut and straightforward. Gillespie's pragmatic presentation of Bianca as a living creature quickly becomes the source for much of Lars and the Real Girl's humor. Gillespie posits Lars in a sympathetic manner; presenting him as a troubled, rather than a perverted figure. Thematically, Gillespie builds Lars’ story around themes of tolerance and innocence. But there is much left to be desired in Gillespie's film.
Central to the film’s problematic application is the overwhelmingly sense of artifice weighing down upon Lars and the Real Girl. For starters, the film is grounded in American cinema’s now all too familiar small-town clichés, featuring an overwhelmingly naïve and folksy populace. Despite a few early sneers, the entire town soon participates in a collective act of self-deception: accepting Bianca as both a native daughter and a flesh and blood being. Eventually, they coif her synthetic hair, elect her to a school board and have her sit on local charities.
Unlike in Henry Koster’s classic Harvey (1950) in which James Stewart’s bumbling, small town alcoholic holds conversations with an invisible six foot white rabbit, there are no dissenting voices or reluctant characters in Lars and The Real Girl. Everybody gets aboard. There are no deep reservations amongst the town’s people about Lars’ sanity or any genuine public questioning of his morally ambiguous relationship with a sex doll. In doing so, Gillespie and Oliver deny the film an externalized realism that would have greatly abetted Lars’ story by providing credence and legitimacy to the film's subject matter.
Instead Lars and the Real Girl becomes less of a magic realist fable and more of a manipulative dash of quirkiness. While Gillespie and Oliver try to conceive of Bianca as an instrument designed to reinforce Lars’ transition into human social relationships, the entire effect raises further questions about Lars’ situation. Why does Lars dislike social interaction? Why are most of his social difficulties solely with women? Why has nobody in Lars’ family or community reacted until now? How exactly is an artificial, emotionless device supposed to help an emotionally crippled human being? Despairingly, few of these questions are touched upon in depth or with sincerity. 
Despite the film’s humorous premise, the film’s self-consciously quirky settings and characters eventually irritate more so than amuse. The performances are the film's greatest strength: ranging in quality with Emily Mortimer’s suffering and compassionate Karin being the most effectual and Kelli Garner’s cutely optimistic Margo appearing the most likeable. Gosling’s lead performance is fraught with melancholy furrows, tepid outbursts and pensive silence. The young Canadian actor displays breadth, but never really allows the audience to connect with Lars.
An occasionally funny, but often emotionally calculated film, Lars and the Real Girl never feels valid enough to be taken seriously or accepted as anything, but a mawkish comedy. The film’s premise does not receive the treatment it needs to fully sustain its basic assertions and narrative principles. Additionally, Nancy Oliver’s script at times condescends to the most banal and overused renderings of small town life in contemporary American cinema. Eventually, both writer and director disregard the audience’s intelligence by overlooking the audience's need to enter Lars’ hidden world. The consequence is a detached, plasticized product that enunciates romance, recovery and redemption, at the expense of calling attention to and exploring the emotional troubles and biographical difficulties that constitute the vast majority of Lars and the Real Girl’s running time.