The Reeler


October 11, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

Sex dolls and sentiment make uncommon bedfellows in this strangely tender small-town tale

Sex dolls and sentiment aren’t common bedfellows, but Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl successfully links them in this nuanced comic drama that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lars (Ryan Gosling), a withdrawn eccentric in a nameless Midwestern town (really Eastern Ontario), believes his silicone rubber goddess is real, and lives with her as his mate. His brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) decide to play along until his delusion plays itself out -- a ruse the entire town is eventually roped into.

The scenario could easily be treated as broad slapstick, but Gillespie and screenwriter Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) consistently downplay the comedy in favor of deepening character details -- scenes set up for a humiliating punchline end up revealing different layers of Lars’s personality. One example of this occurs at the office party: Nervous chatter fills the room as Lars rolls in with his Brazilian-Danish lady, but instead of ratcheting up the awkwardness, the film calms down, his co-workers decide to embrace the delusion and it ends with Lars slow-dancing with himself, smiling away at his new-found community. Mental disability is depicted as neither freakish nor pitiable, but rather as a natural response to a world that can be unendurably lonely.

This relaxed, character-first sensibility seems to come easy to Gillespie, whereas his attempt at a broader style of comedy in his debut, Mr. Woodcock, was an admitted failure. That film was released only a month ago, and fared poorly across the board, critically and at the box office. It suffered rough test screenings before reaching theaters; eventually re-shoots were ordered, helmed by Wedding Crashers’ David Dobkin. With Lars, Gillespie seems to have found his footing, easing into a Hal Ashby-style poker face, although this film wears its heart on its sleeve far more than Being There, an influence Gillespie notes in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine.

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Lars’s delicate humor is brought off impressively by its game cast, headed by Gosling, who is quickly attaining must-see status no matter what film he’s in. Following up his superbly cocky turn in the well-oiled thriller Fracture, he gives a muted, fidgety performance as Lars, as reactive as his previous role was proactive. In both, however, he adds an incredible amount of detail -- in Fracture his lawyer attacks the frame, constantly fiddling with nearby props, splaying on couches and constantly nibbling on jellybeans or nuts. As Lars, Gosling recoils from the world around him; he put on weight for the role, forming jowls that frame the pinched smiles and barrage of embarrassed blinks as he avoids human contact. Even when the script fails, hammering home a cute-girl love interest that’s nothing more than a set of girl-next-door clichés, Gosling hunches his back, catches a glimmer in his eye, and captures the coiled jealousy of an unrequited crush.

As Karin, the over-protective and lovable sister-in-law, Emily Mortimer matches Gosling’s inventiveness in a very physical manner, tackling and prodding Lars into submission until he can no longer deny that she cares for him. In a climactic shouting match, she pitches her voice so high it starts to crack, until her rage becomes a whistling rasp, a perfect embodiment of the exhaustion of her goodwill. Gillespie captures their work in a detached and unobtrusive style, utilizing few tracking shots and relying on his actors to pull off tenderness without descending into sentimental mush. In the hands of talents like Gosling and Mortimer, the subtleties of Lars’s delusion become unexpectedly moving; it may be the first time since childhood you cry over a doll's fate.

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