Background: Truly a traditional independent film, Lars and the Real Girl marks the film debut of both writer Nancy Oliver (HBO's "Six Feet Under") and director Craig Gillespie (who followed it with Mr. Woodcock!?). The script floated around for several years and was #3 on the 2005 Black List of the top 90 unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Lars and the Real Girl was considered gold, but only if the right leading man was found. Who better than current Hollywood "it" guy Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson)? It also stars a handful of other recognizable but mostly unnameable faces - I was happy to see Paul Schneider again, who was recently excellent as Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Lars and the Real Girl was filmed in just 31 days in Ontario, a pretty good stand-in setting for northern Wisconsin where the story is set. As in the movie, the plastic doll was treated just like another cast member on set, with a trailer, make-up, etc.
Synopsis: Lars Lindstrom (Gosling) is an 20-something, unassuming loner who lives in the garage of his childhood home, now occupied by his older brother Gus (Schneider) and pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer from Match Point). Gus and Lars lost their mother at an early age, and Lars was left alone with his distraught father when Gus left after high school. Lars goes to church regularly, works a boring clerical job in a generic office (that also employs a female acquaintance from his church), and basically avoids everyone as much as possible. One of his co-workers introduces Lars to a mail-order doll website, and soon arrives plastic "Bianca," to Lars' great excitement. He introduces her to his brother and sister-in-law as his girlfriend, and their reaction is obviously humorous. Unsure of how to handle the situation, they bring Lars and Bianca to the family doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson from The Station Agent), who to Gus's horror tells them to play along, but also falsely explains to Lars that Bianca is suffering from a strange illness that will require regular visits. Over the course of the next few months, the community gradually accepts Bianca as one of their own, no less a real person than anyone else. In the meantime, Dagmar meets with Lars during Bianca's "treatments" to get to the root of his mental illness, which we learn makes him experience pain when touching anyone except Bianca. Gradually, Lars begins to have trouble coping with his own adulthood, Bianca's place in the community, and his feelings for his co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner from Bully and Thumbsucker), leading to a moving finale.
+ When Lars throws the flower away in one of the first scenes.
+ Ryan Gosling's subdued, sticky, and eventually outstanding performance. It took a little bit for Lars to have any emotional range, but by the end you're again convinced that Gosling deserves all the acclaim he receives.
+ The performances from and chemistry between Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer.
+ The touching musical score at the right times.
+ That the humor was from witty writing and not crude language and innuendo.
- The accents, in general - 1.) For northern Wisconsin, it's completely missing when it should be completely obnoxious, and 2.) Emily Mortimer's British accent comes out clearly in the "nobody cares" argument with Lars.
- That it takes a while to suspend disbelief about the possibility of this story actually happening.
- The costume design - it was a little too kitschy with the perfect retro outfits for Lars and Margo. Even in rural areas of the country, it's still 2007.
Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 4
Total: 45/50= 90% = A-
Last Word: There are sure to be unfair comparisons between Lars and the Real Girl and a number of Napoleon Dynamite-like movies. It's a dry comedy with quirky characters, but that's basically where the similarities end. Lars is an adult, not a high school student, and his inner tragedy is much more profound than weird family members, outward appearance, a low self-esteem or problems with the popular kids at school. I'll admit that the story initially seems outrageous, but when you get past that an incredible thing happens - you stop laughing and actually begin to believe that Bianca is a real person, even if only "real" to Lars, whose struggle gradually becomes both understandable and sad. It was unclear to me whether Lars was just odd, traumatized, or developmentally disabled, but whether all or none of the above, it doesn't really matter. Lars and the Real Girl is a story of acceptance, attachment, and maturity, and it deftly balances comedy and tragedy, which is an impressive achievement from a first-time director. Surely it helps to have an outstanding cast, but this is just a well-made film. The only minor questions I have are about the reality of the community (is this the most tolerant, loving utopia in America?) and Lars (how did he so fluidly and simultaneously interact with "real" people and Bianca?). Despite these, I thought it was surprisingly moving and refreshingly enjoyable to experience.