Lars and the Real Girl (and Calvin and Hobbes)

Last night I went to see a movie, Lars and the Real Girl. When I tell you the premise of the movie, you might guess that it’s a set-up for a lot of crude humour. You’d be wrong.

In one key respect, the movie is akin to the great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) lives on the same property as his brother and sister-in-law. They have turned the garage into a kind of granny flat for him.

It isn’t that they don’t care about him. It’s Lars himself who prefers the arrangement. Lars is functional enough to hold down a job, but otherwise he is steadily retreating into himself. He is well on his way to becoming a recluse.

Things take a very strange twist when Lars buys himself a “love doll”. Not the inflatable kind, but the latest scientific model:  made from very life-like materials, with limbs that can be positioned just where you want them.

Lars introduces “Bianca” to his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). He seems to think that he can pull it off — his family won’t notice that Bianca is a lifeless, latex sex toy.

The truth is rather darker than that. Lars is genuinely delusional:  he believes that Bianca is a real person. He doesn’t regard her as a sex toy. He doesn’t use her for that purpose, even though he considers her his girlfriend.

Lars and Bianca

Karin has been concerned about Lars for some time. Thrown off balance by the latest development, she plays along with Lars in lieu of a better strategy. And then she improvises (I am paraphrasing the dialogue from memory):

Lars, your brother is worried about Bianca. She doesn’t look so well. Maybe Bianca is just having trouble adjusting to the climate, but we think she should see a doctor. Just to be on the safe side.

Gus quickly picks up on Karin’s cue.

That’s right, Lars. We should all go to the doctor together. Tomorrow.

Lars hesitates. A shadow of doubt crosses his face. In the audience, we wonder:  does he realize it’s a trick? But Karin’s ad-lib is a good one. It makes sense within Lars’s frame of reference. And so he agrees that Bianca should see a doctor.

The movie is stimulating because the dialogue constantly operates at two levels. There is Lars’s reality, in which Bianca is a living person who might have need of a doctor. And there is everyone else’s reality, in which Bianca is a sex toy and Lars is the one who needs help.

This is where the movie reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes:  in its skillful handling of a premise where reality functions at two levels at once.

Some part of Lars must be aware that Bianca is merely a doll. In one scene, Karin and Lars have an argument. Karin is careful not to contradict Lars’s frame of reference, or he would (almost literally) cease to hear her. And yet, Karin says things that only really make sense if Lars understands that Bianca is merely a doll.

This movie could have gone terribly wrong. It is a high-risk project that requires everyone to get things pitch-perfect. Given the subject matter, any misstep would be cringe-inducing.

The director assumes intelligence on the part of the audience. Time and again, small points of interest are communicated solely through body language. Gosling, in particular, is masterful at conveying information just by a rigid posture, or an unnatural stillness of his face. When his character is agitated, Gosling’s physical mannerisms are utterly perfect. (I should know:  I worked with emotionally troubled adults for several years.)

The movie has moments that are very funny, but we are never laughing at Lars. (OK, we may laugh at him a little, but never in a mean-spirited way.)

Other scenes are poignant. The movie works well as a drama. What is the function of this delusion in the development of Lars’s psyche? What has triggered it? How will it be resolved?

The immediate effect of the delusion is surprisingly positive. Lars begins to come out of himself and engage the world. He even accepts an invitation to a party with his colleagues from work.

But of course, it can’t be healthy in the long run. Something has to give.

The only flaw in this movie is that, inevitably, it stretches credulity to the breaking point. For example, the whole community rallies in support of Lars. In the real world, some people would be cruel. Even Lars’s family might not be able to deal with the situation (although the movie handles the family’s reaction very well. Karin is completely supportive; Gus is ambivalent).

But let’s set that quibble aside. Movies require that we suspend our disbelief, and allow the story to carry us where it will. At one point, my friend snorted, “As if!”, but she enjoyed the movie just as much as I did.

In sum:  an interesting premise; humour; pathos; first-rate acting; dialogue that works at multiple levels. Highly recommended.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Nov 13, 2007 @ 23:35:39

    Makes me want to check it out! But perhaps once it’s on film — sounds like the kind of movie that doesn’t require the big screen to make an impact!

    Reply

  2. Bridgett
    Nov 14, 2007 @ 14:44:36

    That sounds fabulous. Thanks for reviewing–I so rarely even know what’s out there these days.

    Reply

  3. juggling mother
    Nov 14, 2007 @ 16:24:17

    I’ve never heard of it, but I’ll keep an eye out. it sounds good.

    The new template is much nicer thanks. Light backgrounds are much better for my eyes:-)

    Reply

  4. girl from the north
    Nov 19, 2007 @ 16:45:22

    I went to see “Lars and the Real Girl” this past weekend and was deeply moved by it. Sure, I laughed along with the people in the audience, but for the most part, I could not help weeping through much of it.

    Like the character in the film, I struggle to connect and relate to other people because of emotional neglect and lack of good touch growing up. I wasn’t taught how to relate to others very well.

    As I work to come out of my shell and rediscover touch and learn how to date and relate to others, this movie has been a wonderful discovery for me!

    I was very impressed with Ryan Gosling’s portrayal. The visceral reactions Lars has to touch and emotional intimacy are right on the mark. So was the idea of Lars having to finish growing up. In my own life, this is exactly what I have had to do – finish my adolescence after being emotionally frozen in it. I know of many people recovering from painful childhoods who display mannerisms and emotional features very similar to this character.

    I read an article on the film maker’s motivation for creating this work. Her thought was “What if we didn’t treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?” Even though it’s a fantasy, wouldn’t it be a great thing if the mentally ill in this country were shown compassion?

    “Lars and the Real Girl” is pretty quirky and sappy, but most of all I think it’s hopeful.

    Thanks for your review. I hope more people will go see this film.

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Nov 21, 2007 @ 21:43:03

    • Girl from the north:

    I am moved by your story. Your comment makes me glad that I posted this review.

    I hope you have plenty of good support for working things through. If you could use another listening ear, my email address is
    stephen[dot]peltz[at]gmail[dot]com

    I’d be glad to offer whatever support I can.

    Reply

  6. patrick
    Apr 24, 2008 @ 14:16:59

    the over all look and feel of Lars and the Real Girl reminded me a lot of Mozart and the Whale (Josh Hartnett plays a similar character as Ryan Gosling’s); well done over all, Gosling did a great job playing out his character’s psychological transitions

    Reply

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