It would be all too easy to dismiss Lars and the Real Girl as a quirky comedy.
After all, it’s a movie about a guy (Lars, played by Ryan Gosling) who buys a Real Doll and treats it like she is legitimately real and his girlfriend.
But Lars is much better than that description.
In fact, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.
In the film, Lars is an awkward, introverted loner who, despite living in the garage of his brother and sister-in-law’s house, and despite their attempts to involve him in their life, chooses to stick to himself rather than spend time with others.
Lars’ interactions with Bianca are very real (minus the sex — apparently, they’re both Christian and won’t even sleep in the same bedroom), and he becomes much more comfortable and outgoing around her. When his brother and sister consult a doctor (Patricia Clarkson) about how to deal with the situation, she gives them the questionable advice to go along with the illusion.
Soon the entire town is also pretending that Bianca is real.
But Lars isn’t pretending. Instead, he’s delusional because all his life, he’s been abandoned: his mother died at childbirth, his father was emotionally absent, and his brother left home as early as he possibly could, returning only after their father passed away.
Now Lars sees others’ happiness all around (his brother and sister-in law are expecting a child, for example) and rather than taking emotional risks and letting people in, he’s avoiding any potential hurt and sticking with the one “person” he knows will never leave him.
To the credit of director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver, Lars isn’t a movie filled with cheap laughs. Sure, you can’t help but giggle when Bianca is invited to school board meetings or asked to volunteer at the local hospital, or when she’s getting her hair done at the salon. And maybe it is a little too easy and unreal that the entire town seems to buy into the conceit that Bianca is real. But really, she becomes almost as real to the audience as she is to Lars, meaning we become as invested in the relationship as he is.
So much credit for that is due to Gosling, who creates a beautiful portrait of a lonely man who finally finds happiness and can’t see how abnormal it is. It’s not a winking, knowing performance. In fact, the character engenders so much sympathy that as it goes on, the film actually becomes quite sad. Damn if it didn’t bring a tear to my eye toward the end.
In a way, I hate movies like Lars because they tap into a part of me that can identify with loneliness and feelings of abandonment. But I also really love them, especially when they’re as well made and “real” as this one is.