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February 9, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | February 9, 2008 |

If it holds that comedy is tragedy plus time, then Lars and the Real Girl belongs to the newer subgenre that says comedy is simply tragedy in the here and now. Perhaps the greatest example of this is “The Office,” both in its original U.K. incarnation and the repurposed version on NBC. The show is all about mining sadness, humiliation, and the general unpleasance of being alive and somehow making that the source of all its comedy. That’s the central paradox of Lars and the Real Girl, a sweet, tender, spectacular, deeply sad movie that’s both absurdly funny and deadly serious, often swinging from one to the other in mere seconds. The humor is based on intense pain and loneliness, and not the cartoonish sketch of those feelings hinted at in, say, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Nancy Oliver’s screenplay delves into some deep, uncomfortable places in our collective heart and manages to come up holding something fragile, and breakable, and altogether heartrending because the punch lines only serve as a reminder of why the jokes are there in the first place: to somehow laugh at the terrible nature of what life can often be, and in doing so to keep the mind from breaking as often as our hearts. I don’t mean to say the film isn’t funny: There are wonderful, hilarious moments of sharp, character-driven humor that earn genuine laughs. But the levity is merely the gateway to something deeper, and truer, than a mildly risqué comedy about a lonely guy. Lars and the Real Girl isn’t that film; it’s smarter, and much better.

The film opens with Lars (Ryan Gosling) staring out at the world behind the protection his living room window in a snow-covered, nameless northern town. He lives in a garage that’s been converted into a living space off the main house, where his older brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and Gus’s wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), have lived for a few years. Just how long they’ve been there isn’t clear; Lars and Gus were left the house by their father, who died some years previously. But Lars is happy with the way things are, living at a remove from the rest of the world, not even able or willing to share a home with his own brother and sister-in-law. Gosling is fantastic at building the character of Lars from just a few physical details, letting the dialogue serve as the final piece in the process. He blinks more than is bound to be normal; he can’t hold eye contact; he’ll often simply nod and walk away from someone as means of conversation. Lars is so lonely that he transcends the word; the concept implies an emotional state, but Lars has such a paralyzing fear and aversion to physical and emotional connection that he exists on an entirely new plane of being than mere loneliness. His mother died giving birth to him, and he’s walking around broken and quiet and absolutely terrified of losing someone else.

One of Lars’s coworkers points him to Real Dolls, life-size, customizable sex dolls presumably ordered by those whose solitude is matched by their financial resources, and a few weeks later, a big plain box shows up for Lars. This is the one moment where the film’s key thesis — Lars’s quasi-delusional state in which he treats the doll as an actual person — is a little shaky, since obviously some part of Lars knew what he was doing when he bought the doll and had it shipped to his house. He appears at his brother’s door one night, grinning confidently and announcing that he’s got a “visitor” who “doesn’t speak much English.” He also asks if she can stay in Gus’s spare room, since Lars’s religious convictions are making him uneasy about cohabitating with a woman outside the bonds of marriage. Gus and Karin, predictably thrilled with Lars’s news, invite him and his girlfriend over for dinner, which is when the film strikes out into the brave foggy unknown and cautiously begins to discover its own tone. When Lars shows up with the doll, now christened Bianca, it’s obviously a funny moment, and his descriptions of her missionary work play along with the quirkiness of the situation. But this is also the film’s toughest sequence because this is where Oliver and director David Gillespie begin to walk the terrifying line between camp and humor, and between mocking the situation and letting it play out to its own natural ends. Gus is understandably unnerved by Bianca’s presence and the fact that his kid brother is having one-sided conversations with a giant hunk of silicone designed to be a high-end masturbator, and this is where Lars and the Real Girl begins to so effectively and powerfully meld the premise’s off-key humor with the dark pain that both birthed the premise itself and also keeps it in check. Talking frantically in the kitchen about Bianca, Karin says to Gus, “It’s funny,” hoping to take the edge off his brother’s loony excursion. But Gus shoots back in concern, “Is it?” And the answer is: Kinda. Sometimes. But not really.

The bulk of the film revolves around the town’s reaction to Lars and Bianca, and Oliver’s story is even sadder in the way it crafts a beautiful, fairy-tale world for Lars as he suffers what clearly becomes a kind of delusional crisis. The townsfolk are deferent to Lars and Bianca, asking him how she’s doing and inviting the pair to parties in a way that underscores the tangled emotions at work and highlights just how different this fictional haven is from the real world, where Lars would undoubtedly become such an object of small-town scorn and gossip that he would retreat completely into his house. Even the adorable mousy girl from Lars’s office, Margo (Kelli Garner), is open-minded about the whole thing, shoving aside her giant crush on Lars to help him get through his problems. The film’s heart is simply too big and loving to subject Lars to any greater torment than the considerable journey he’s already taking through mental disrepair and the tough road of early manhood. More importantly, Lars doesn’t have sex with the doll. Intercourse is only briefly mentioned in the film, and even that’s a throwaway line in a softly heartrending conversation between Gus and Lars, where Lars is asking Gus just what it means to be a man, and how to know if that day arrives. That’s what the film is ultimately about: Growing up. Trapped in his second childhood, Lars is forced to work his way through his relationship — and it is one, in a true and palpable sense — with Bianca, and to find out on his own what it is to move on to the next stage of life. Attending church one Sunday, his arm comfortably around Bianca, Lars is lost in thought as the pastor recites a passage from 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” Gillespie cuts away before the next line, and it’s the one Lars will probably struggle with the most: “But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Oliver’s script is expertly paced and structured, weaving together various emotional subplots with a deft touch, which isn’t totally surprising given her history as a writer and producer for “Six Feet Under.” Gillespie’s direction is equally skilled, which actually is something of a shock, considering that his only previous feature was Mr. Woodcock. (The gap between the quality of these films is almost too stupefying to think about for too long.) But Lars and the Real Girl would be nothing without Gosling’s phenomenal performance anchoring it, giving it a soul and broken heart in a way that few other actors of his generation could. Ever since The Believer, Gosling has gotten into the habit of turning in some dazzling performances and creating strong but vulnerable characters, like Half Nelson’s Dan Dunne, and Lars is no exception. He isn’t for a second some set of affectations cobbled together by an actor; he’s a real person, and Gosling gives him such depth and life that his work ceases to be a performance and becomes a heightened state of being. I mean, he’s playing off a doll in some scenes. He has nothing to act against besides his own emotions, and it’s never less than riveting. Similarly, Schneider gives another sweet, sensational turn as Gus, who’s upset with what’s happening to his brother but never for a moment considers abandoning him. That’s what he spends the movie fighting, and Lars’s loosening grip on some aspects of reality actually winds up bringing the brothers closer than they were before.

Lars and the Real Girl is a good film in the truest sense of the word: It exudes warmth and forgiveness and even a sense of atonement, of sacrifices made for the sake of reuniting what’s been broken. And it is, quite often, funny, in everything from Lars’s tactless reactions to Margo’s subtle hints of love to a few well-placed sight gags involving Bianca. But to dismiss it as a wacky comedy about a guy in love with a doll would be to mislabel it and to foolishly miss the entire point. It’s about the intersection of life and death, and of love and adulthood, and about how sometimes you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Lars and the Real Girl / Daniel Carlson

Film | February 9, 2008 |

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