Thursday, May 14, 2015

I'm a Barbie Girl

Film: Lars and the Real Girl
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve sat here with a Word document open for a few minutes wondering exactly how to approach Lars and the Real Girl. Anyone who hasn’t seen it and knows the story will understand that, as will most of the people who have seen it. It’s alternately a truly bizarre drama and a poignant comedy at times, despite the elevator pitch. Everything about Lars and the Real Girl screams that it will be trash comedy that manages not even a smile in all but the thickest cretins in the audience, and yet it’s actually an effective, even heartfelt film.

That elevator pitch makes this unlikely. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is an introverted loner living in the garage behind the house of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’s pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Virtually all interactions with Lars are incredibly frustrating. He doesn’t like to be talked to or touched and always appears (and is) uncomfortable in all personal situations. This changes when Lars sends away for life-sized, presumably anatomically correct sex doll that he names Bianca (presumably played by herself).

Naturally, this causes a reaction in Gus and Karin. Karin, though, interacts with Bianca as if she were a real person, and on the insistence of Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), a family friend and doctor. Dagmar suggests that Bianca should be seen each week, mainly so she can use that time to work with Lars and see what is underlying his delusion about the reality of Bianca and his apparent need for her as a way to deal with and connect to the world.

So, based on that simple plot layout, it’s evident that Lars and the Real Girl could well have been a trashy comedy realized as a constant stream of sex doll jokes. And that’s not what it is at all. What happens instead is, due to the influence of a few key people in town, everyone accepts Bianca as a real person more or less for the sake of Lars and his sanity. As Lars starts to deal more and more with actual reality, his need for Bianca changes. This becomes more evident as he begins to develop a relationship with Margo (Kelli Garner), a coworker who has shown interest in him in the past.

Lars and the Real Girl could well have been a terrible movie, but a few things rescue it from being a joke. The first is that it boasts a script that takes it seriously. Rather than treating this as an actual comedy, it’s more or less treated as a drama about a ridiculous situation. It’s the right way to handle this if the subject is going to be taken seriously at all. Mental illness, which really is at the heart of this in a lot of ways, is a serious subject and already stigmatized without it being turned into a farcical joke. Instead, the script treats Lars and everyone else with a lot of respect, and that helps a great deal.

It’s also helped along by a good cast. Ryan Gosling plays this straight as well. Aside from his crippling shyness and the delusion that Bianca is a real person, Lars is otherwise a person and not a collection of tics or idiosyncrasies. It would be an easy place to take this, and he doesn’t go there, which is the right way to handle it. The same is true of Kelli Garner, whose Margo is, to use the current term, adorkable and who manages to be completely believable as someone in a very strange relationship state.

I’ll also toss out some love for Patricia Clarkson, but that’s in no small part because I pretty much like Patricia Clarkson no matter where I see her. She’s always great, here no less than anywhere else.

I watched this because it was about to go off NetFlix streaming, and anything I can keep off the disc queue just keeps things a little cleaner. I frankly expected this to be something frivolous and perhaps funny, but ultimately kind of stupid. It’s really not. This is not a laugh-out-loud film. It’s a comedy only in its premise. It’s reality is a very sweet film that I’m happy to have watched.

Perhaps more films like this one are needed. There are plenty of films that treat illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease with a sober tone and some that treat such things as simply a part of life and as an experience. We need more films that treat mental illness—any mental illness not with sobriety, but with simple respect. Lars and the Real Girl doesn’t stigmatize Lars, and the people who want to stigmatize him don’t. Even if it wasn’t worth watching, it would be notable for that, but it’s worth seeing beyond that, too. And that’s a good thing.

Why to watch Lars and the Real Girl: It rises so far above its premise it’s almost unbelievable.
Why not to watch: The premise is cringe-worthy.


  1. I remember when this came out, and I read the premise, and then saw the classification rating: here in Australia it was PG. I thought they had got it wrong: how could a film with a sex doll as a character be PG! Like you, I was very pleasantly surprised.

    I felt there was a lot of love in this film: it is touching how much the town rallies around Lars, showing him love even though he may not realise it or respond the way they want. This is especially true for Lars' brother, who is embarrassed by Lars' behaviour, but is also genuinely worried about his mental health.

    1. I agree. This is a film that walks a knife edge between sweetness and ridiculousness. It could have very easily turned into something that was nothing but farce, but it avoids that.

      "Pleasantly surprised" covers it nicely.

  2. This was one of the films I would have picked for your 12 to see, if you had not asked me to skip any Oscar nominees you were going to watch anyway. I'm glad you liked it (along with Whale Rider, the other one I would have given had it not been an Oscar nominee).

    This is one of those films where I first tell people "don't let the concept scare you away." Secretary is another.

    I agree that it's not a comedy, but that humor comes from everything being treated as real. I laughed at how Bianca started having a better social life than Lars did. The doctor had several dry comments I laughed at ("her blood pressure's a little low.")

    Going along with Julia Mac's comment, I think the only reason this was rated PG-13 here in the U.S. is because of what Bianca is in real life, not anything that is presented onscreen. It's really a PG movie here, too.

    My favorite scene is reviving the toy bear and I'm pretty sure Gosling adlibbed that. If you watch closely you can see Garner start to react in surprise, then stay in character and go with it.

    1. There's a lot to like with this. I mentioned to a co-worker that I was putting this review up and he immediately brightened up and said "I've seen that! I liked that movie."

      The fact that he'd seen it was exciting to him in and of itself. Everyone I work with is used to me watching things that no one has ever heard of, let alone seen.

    2. "Everyone I work with is used to me watching things that no one has ever heard of, let alone seen."

      That's what you get for being such a film snob. It can be lonely up there in that rarefied air.

      (Kidding. Big time.)

    3. You of anyone should know that feeling!