It’s not for nothing that Lars and the Real Girl is set in the wintry climes of the northern Midwest. The region of the country that inspires the “Minnesota nice” stereotype is the perfect location for this story of a romantically (and socially)-challenged man reaching out for help. For it just so happens that when his sublimated desparation reaches the point of delusion his family, co-workers, and eventually the whole community is just too gosh-darn nice to do anything but play along. He, and as a result we the viewers, are all the better for it.
Certainly, it would be easy to make fun of a man like Lars (Academy Award-nominee Ryan Gosling, in one of his best and certainly most insular performances). Living in the garage of the home he shares with his brother Gus (Paul Schneider, of “Parks and Recreation”) and his sister-in-law Karin (a fantastic Emily Mortimer), Lars lives such a solitary life that at the film’s start Karin struggles with even getting Lars to accept a simple invitation to eat breakfast one cold morning before work.
When, one day, he announces to Gus and Karin that he has “a visitor” staying with him, they are elated. The look on their faces when they first meet “Bianca,” the life-size doll he has ordered on the Internet, is the first of many laughs screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie ably wring out of the film’s unusual story.
But making fun of Lars and wringing laugh after laugh out of the story of a man and his life-size doll isn’t what Oliver and Gillespie are up to here. Instead of a bawdy sex comedy or a condescending melodrama, Lars and the Real Girl manages to tiptoe a perfect balance between reality and sentimental fairy tale, and its to the credit of Oliver, Gillespie, Gosling, and everyone involved in this wonderful film’s production that it somehow never falters or missteps.
Oliver’s screenplay in particular is incredibly insightful. She takes the existence of these “Real Girls” and uses one to tell the story of a painfully lonely man, in desperate need for social assistance but with no way of indicating it, reaching out the only way that makes sense to him and somehow succeeding, thanks to incredible outpouring of concern and care from the community around him to support him. It’s a story that really can’t be summarized without making the film sound trite or ridiculous or in anyway as successful as it truly is. The emotional weight and dexterity of Lars and the Real Girl must be seen, and felt, to be believed.
Gosling is simply perfect as Lars. His perpetually combed hair and reflexive smile are betrayed by his desolate eyes. He is deeply lonely but through no fault of his own; the world just up and got more difficult for him to handle than he was prepared for. Mortimer’s Karin is the crucial character in Lars’ rescue, as she has the most concern for Lars when the film starts and, once Bianca arrives and is introduced, is the first (besides Lars, of course) to start treating her like a real person. Her performance is, like Gosling’s, pitch-perfect, and the scene they share towards the end of the film as Lars is chopping firewood out of frustration is perhaps the film’s high point.
That Karin almost without hesitation treats Bianca as a real woman leads to Gus’ continued bewilderment, and Schneider does an excellent job playing Gus’ reluctance to support Lars’ delusion. Patricia Clarkson lends a sincere authority to her role as Dagmar, the physician/psychologist who both sees to Bianca and advises Gus and Karin. Lastly, Kelli Garner is tremendous as Margo, a co-worker with an unrequited crush on Lars whose character provides most of the heartache that is at the core of Lars and the Real Girl.