Lars and the Real Girl (12a)
In the 1950s, Wendell Johnson, the American psychologist, placed popular love songs in three categories. First, Idealisation. ‘Nature fashioned you and when she was done, you were all the sweet things rolled into one.’ Then Frustration. ‘I’m all alone by the telephone, all alone feeling blue.’ Finally, Demoralisation, when the lover retreats into neurotic fantasy: ‘I’m going to buy a paper doll that I can call my own, a doll that other fellows cannot steal.’
I was thinking of his thesis after seeing the unnerving comedy ‘Lars and the Real Girl’, the second movie by Craig Gillespie, working from an Oscar-nominated original screenplay by Nancy Oliver, one of the writers on TV series Six Feet Under
The film is set in winter in an unnamed small town in a Midwestern state, and the central character is Lars Lindstrom, a pathologically shy 27-year-old working in some sort of office. He’s played by Ryan Gosling, a specialist in loners and outsiders. Lars lives in a bedsitter attached to the garage of the house he has co-owned with his elder brother Gus (Paul Schneider) since the death of their father. Gus, who runs a hardware store, and his pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) constantly try to lure Lars to dine with them, but he always has some excuse to refuse social engagements.
Everyone in this friendly, tightknit community, most of them members of the local Holy Grace Lutheran Church, are solicitous for Lars’s welfare and eager to draw him out of his loneliness. One day, a large, heavy coffin-like box is delivered at the garage, and shortly thereafter Lars tells Gus and Karin that he has a girlfriend whom he’d like them to meet. He brings her over for dinner, tells them she’s called Bianca, is half-Brazilian, half-Danish, has had her wheelchair stolen and would be better off sleeping in the spare bedroom in the main house rather than with him beside the garage.
His brother and sister-in-law’s initial delight rapidly abates when they discover that Bianca is a provocatively dressed, lifesize, anatomically correct sex toy, bought on the internet from a firm called Real-Dolls, which has provided her with a little biography. Lars treats her as if she’s absolutely real but even shyer than him, so he acts as her interpreter. What we expect is Frank Capra meets Ann Summers, and an orgy of bad taste about fetishism and the treatment of transgressive sex in narrow-minded communities seems in the offing. But it doesn’t turn out that way.
Gus and Karin start to go along with Lars and are approaching a point of no return when they turn for help to the pastor and the town’s female GP (Patricia Clarkson), who is also a trained psychologist. The doctor pretends to be taking on Bianca as a patient, while actually providing therapy for Lars.
Gradually, the whole town is transformed by Bianca’s presence. She’s put on committees, addresses schoolchildren, is given a makeover by concerned local women so that she becomes a more suitable companion for Lars. At first, he’s jealous of their attention, but begins to change, to be brought out of himself, and we infer that through Bianca and his sister-in-law’s pregnancy he’s at last coming to terms with his mother’s death in childbirth and the recent demise of his father.
The film, however, is not concerned with psychological explanation. Rather it’s a moral fable exploring kindness, understanding, love and the acceptance of human diversity.
It has four principal antecedents, it seems to me. The first is Pirandello’s Enrico IV in which a rich man in 1921 Italy believes he’s a feudal king and everyone around him plays up to this delusion. The second, Harvey, is about an amiable alcoholic (played on film and stage by James Stewart) who thinks he’s accompanied everywhere by an invisible 6ft rabbit. The third is the sequence in Dead of Night where ventriloquist Michael Redgrave is taken over by his dummy. The fourth is Hitchcock’s Psycho to which there are several direct allusions. It’s a lesser thing than three of these, but better in my view than Harvey, being less whimsical and less inclined to see its protagonist as an unconditional bringer of light.
In his first film, the undervalued ‘Mr Woodcock’, Craig Gillespie took a somewhat less idealistic view of small-town life. But in that movie and his new film, he deals acutely with embarrassment as an edgy source of humour and social criticism. He’s served admirably by an ensemble cast who give the impression of being an authentic community. Patricia Clarkson is particularly good as the generous, understanding doctor and shrink, who’s unassertively the articulate moral centre of the town.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
Craig Gillespie | USA | 2007 | 106 minutes | 12a