LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling), 27, is so shy that when his pregnant sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), knocks on his door to invite him to breakfast, he doesn’t greet her, he hides. Nervously, like a man avoiding a certified letter from the IRS, Lars stands at the edge of his front window, peeking out, clearly hoping she’ll give up and walk away. But Karin, who lives mere steps from the converted garage into which Lars moved when his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) brought home his bride, knows that Lars is in there, so she holds her ground. Reluctantly, Lars goes to the door. He goes because he’s as polite as he is shy, and because he understands that Karin is the best person he (or Gus) will ever know. Like the mother who died when he was born, who lives on in his mind, Karin is full to bursting with loving hopes for Lars. It is Karin’s insistence that the Lindstrom brothers have fuller, better selves hiding within that drives this funny and wonderfully human new comedy.
What happened to make Lars so people averse? One of the beauties of Nancy Oliver’s pitch perfect, Oscar-nominated screenplay — her first, after having written episodes of Six Feet Under — is that the sources of Lars’ pain are never explicitly explained. He doesn’t have a third act summing-up speech. His mother died, leaving Lars with a father who wasn’t so nice. Or maybe he was. Gus and Lars have differing opinions on that, a note of contention that feels true to how family stories play out; one son’s hero is another son’s adversary. Either way, Lars is wary of the world. It hurts him, literally, to be touched, a fact no one appears to know, and which may be why he’s so reluctant to open the door to Karin (she’s a hugger), or accept the attentions of Margo (Kelli Garner), the beautifully plain co-worker who keeps throwing herself at Lars, who goes online instead and buys himself a lover — a life-sized, anatomically correct doll (in hot pants) named Bianca.
Too proper to actually sleep with his new mate, Lars, who’s suddenly become quite verbose, asks Karin and Gus if Bianca can sleep in their spare room, a request they’re too stunned to deny. Bianca the blow-up doll moves in, Lars starts grinning, and on the advice of the local doctor (Patricia Clarkson) — who just happens to have a psychotherapy degree — Karin, Gus and eventually the entire town (a very small one) is playing along, pretending, for Lars sake, that Bianca is an actual person, one in need of patience, affection, and twice-daily wardrobe changes.
If this were a Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller movie, Bianca might inspire American Pie style sexual antics, but director Craig Gillespie’s broadest comic stroke comes early on, when Lars abruptly disposes of a carnation he’s supposed to be giving to poor Margo, who looks dismayed but not surprised that her would-be lothario is clueless about girls and flowers. Once Bianca arrives, Gillespie relies for laughs on the disbelieving faces of those who meet her, particularly Gus, whose comic freak-out slowly turns to anger as he realizes that he’s being forced to go along with pure irrationality. Gradually, weirdness gives way to everyday routine — Bianca at the dinner table, Bianca being tucked in at night — and Gus’s dismay tilts toward sadness, one born of grief for his unhinged brother, and guilt at having failed him. Lars and the Real Girl is the story of Lars waking up to life’s possibilities, but I think the fuller and more interesting journey belongs to Gus, who is first amused and then haunted by a question Lars asks him in the kitchen one day, out of the blue: “How did you know you were a man?”
This may be a question brothers never stop asking one another — brothers are forever on the seesaw together — and watching Gus process Lars’ query really got to me. All things revolve around Lars, but Gus is the secret heart of this movie. He's low-key and ordinary — a rarity in movies — and deeply in love with his wife. If Gus were the exact same guy at the end of this movie as he’d been at the film’s beginning, well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But he isn’t. The presence of Lars presses Gus to think about their father, and though this is never stated outright, he's thinking too about the kind of father he himself will soon be. “How did you know you were a man?” Lars asked, and trying to figure out his own answer to that question triggers a momentary fissure in Gus. He breaks, and then — in the loving space provided by Karin, who saw the moment coming — he reconfigures himself, as brother, husband, and father-to-be. In a film that’s all about people taking small turns toward grace, Gus’ internal shift forward is the sweetest of all. (Chuck Wilson)