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Published: Friday, 10/26/2007

Movie review: Lars and the Real Girl ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl. Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl.
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Lars and the Real Girl should not work. Not at all. Not a little. But it does. Could be a muddled fantasy-sci-fi romance - a Viking from the past! A clone from the future! A love which knew no bounds! Could be the John Hughes teen epic that never was. Instead, when you hear the premise, the chances of this working, even as a disposable Saturday-Night-Live-five-minutes-before-1 a.m. sketch, dim further: It tells the story of a shy, reclusive young cubicle drone who has a rather social, unashamed serious relationship with a full-sized mail-order doll.

A sex toy, basically.

Except Ryan Gosling, who plays this lonely soul, doesn't have sex with it. The thought doesn't seem to occur to him. He plays boards games with it, er, her. She provides companionship. He introduces her to his family, and brings her to an office Christmas party, in a wheelchair - since she does not walk. He brings her to church. She is Bianca, a Brazilian missionary who indeed looks lifelike - for a moment, I wondered if she had Botox, then I realized ... oh, yeah.

There are further reasons to flinch: Gosling, who plays Lars (and specializes in wounded birds), wears this big uncomfortable-looking moustache which could be fake, or inexplicably a disguise. But it is real, and it's a bit of quirk overload for a character in such a bizarro situation, poised as it is on a knife's edge between satire and sincerity. And about that earnestness: It primarily comes from Lars' small Midwestern town, probably in Minnesota, considering the Scandinavian names and snow and a Lake Wobegonishness so thick Garrison Keillor would gag. And if none of that turns you off, there's a leap the film takes that would doom a less morally rigorous production: The town, faced with Lars' synthetic companion, encourages their forbidden love.

Anyone still reading?

Bianca "volunteers" at church, gets elected to the school board, has her hair washed in day spas; the locals give her "work," and ask after her when she's absent.

OK, now - anyone left?

I have to say, if Lars and the Real Girl were a quirky British working-class comedy, I wouldn't be reading - the die would be cast, the cast would be scrappy and cute, and the Monty would be very Full. I'm not saying it's not. But Lars and the Real Girl also has an outlook that is so distinctly American, and rarely seen in movies at all, that I'm willing to harbor a few illusions.

Which is what the town does.

Lars clearly has issues, deeply rooted issues; he doesn't like being touched, and can barely look forward. But by going along with his self-delusion, the locals hope to be not so much enablers (though they are) as simply, and generously, compassionate. I'd say it's a distinctly American film, though not because Americans have a monopoly on compassion. But because it's a study in conviction despite common sense, sympathy in the face of overwhelming ridiculousness, a plea for tolerance and resilience, a self-portrait of our belief in our own innate decency and goodness - just add Frank Capra.

That you don't gag is a miracle, never mind the sex doll. But it takes a village to raise a boy, even when that boy is an adult man who lives in a garage behind the old family house, refusing all invitations from his brother (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) to swing by for dinner some night. This is even before Bianca arrives in a crate.

Should you laugh?

No. Yes. A bit. Maybe.

Yes, because Lars - directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver, from HBO's Six Feet Under - is closely observed and carries a slight absurdist touch that has more to do with our own quirks and hang-ups than a guy dating a doll. When Bianca arrives, she wears fishnet stockings and vampish makeup, so Lars quickly puts her in dowdy holiday sweaters and Dockers.

You know, to blend in.

Not everyone understands: Some folks at church scowl (even as they go home and dress their cats in mini outfits), and even his own brother finds it hard to look at Lars; Schneider's face is a marvel here, a rubbery reminder of how the real world, outside of movies like this, would react, but he's unable to maintain his grudge.

He's our anchor. He's funny.

What isn't? Everything else.

I found it hard to laugh, though at the screening I attended, many did. I found it tough because the film's sense of common decency is so strong and genuine, you want to cry instead. This is a big-hearted, tender picture with a sense of humor, but don't lose sight of what Gillespie and Oliver are doing: Bianca is less of a sight gag than a way of framing Lars - notice the guy sitting to her right? The one clearly with a held-in hurt? Whatever laugh might arise is quickly stifled once Patricia Clarkson ducks in as a local doctor who begins to treat Lars, without a hint of condescension. She sends Bianca "out for tests" then casually "chats" with Lars in her office for an hour. If Lars is something of a medical curiosity, Clarkson goes the tougher road and wonders how such a doctor might show acceptance.

None of this would work, of course, without a first-rate cast, and definitely not unless Gosling was believable - to be honest, I'm not sure I buy what he's doing, mugging, shrugging, holding a tight little smirk. But I also suppose, like the film's embrace of unlimited sympathy, you should see past the pose: Lars is a man trying not to look as vulnerable as he is, trying to do the right thing. Bianca is a crutch, a set of training wheels to ease him into adulthood. So's the moustache, which he wears like a child does playing adult. What's so ultimately moving about Lars and the Real Girl is this realization, that Lars, odd as he may be, has been reaching out all along.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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