Whenever I saw Lars and the Real Girl at the video store, I skipped over it thinking it was a tasteless comedy. I’m not sure how I missed that it was critically acclaimed, written by Nancy Oliver of Six Feet Under, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Apparently I live under a rock. And given that the cover features Ryan Gosling looking geeky and adorable, I don’t know why it took me so long to think ‘that’s odd’, pick it up and actually read the back. Of course when I did, I was in the mood for a tasteless comedy, so I didn’t rent it.
After months of staring at me like that weird looking sad-eyed dog at the pound, it eventually got to me. I took it home, and I loved it. It’s the kind of thing I’m always looking for: something that restores my faith in human nature. It’s funny, but it’s also an intensely earnest film, and I am, as my horoscope once told me, the poster boy for excessive earnestness.
Lars is different. He’s completely unable to interact socially or connect with other people. He works in a cubicle, lives in a converted garage behind the house he and his brother inherited from their father, and he can’t stand to be touched. When his skeevy co-worker shows him a website called RealGirl which sells high end sex dolls, Lars decides to order himself a girlfriend. This premise sounds very sketchy, but it’s actually charming. When “Bianca” arrives in a giant shipping crate, Lars is a complete gentleman. He agonizes over what to say to her. He creates a life history for her, pushes her around in a wheelchair, and introduces her to his family. He really believes that she’s a real girl, and he doesn’t even try to kiss her.
There’s something very Charlie Brown about it. Lars’ predicament reminds me of Charlie Brown’s desire to connect without the ability to make connections, and also of Linus and his security blanket, although in this case the blanket is an anatomically correct sex doll. (Actually, he also wears the blue baby blanket his mother knitted him as a scarf, so he’s even one-upping his own Linus-ness.) Bianca is Lars’ interface with the world. She makes it possible for him to interact with other people from a safe distance and facilitate his own interactions in a way that circumnavigates his social anxiety. I’m not that socially challenged, but i can relate.
Lars’ family and friends are initially shocked, but when their family doctor, who is also a psychologist, advises them that the best way to help him is to play along with his delusion, they pull together and accept Bianca into the community. She volunteers at the hospital, joins the school board, attends social gatherings without Lars, and with the help of everyone who drives her around and sets her up places, she ends up having a kind of a life of her own. Lars still narrates for her, telling the story of their relationship and using how Bianca is feeling to express himself, but interacting with her also starts to positively affect the lives of everyone around her.
Patricia Clarkson is fantastic as Dr. Dagmar. She’s calm and compassionate, and she doesn’t let them take the easy way out and call him crazy. It’s a challenging approach, but helping Lars help himself rather than trying to wrestle his coping mechanism away from him seems like good advice. Lars is in love, and like all lovers, he’s certain it will work out and that anyone who says otherwise is mistaken. I doubt that Samson’s strength was really in his hair, but he sure must have believed that it was. Linus gets dizzy and experiences withdrawal symptoms when anyone takes his blanket away, and Snoopy keeps trying to steal it, convinced that it’s a source of something wonderful. At one point, the blanket actually attacks Lucy for trying to separate it from Linus. It’s a good thing Dagmar was there to help, otherwise Lars could have had Bianca go all Bride of Chucky on them.
Up until this point, one assumes that Lars has been coping the best he can, but his situation is about to change. His brother and sister-in-law are expecting a baby, and there’s a real live human girl at work who has a crush on him. He wants to find a way to connect, but direct contact is too much for him. As Dagmar says, “Bianca is in town for a reason.” It makes me think of a workshop called Sock Puppet Assertiveness Training that comics editor Carol Borden and I created back in our university days. We had people make their own sock puppets, and then use them as an interface for responding assertively to the kinds of situations in which they would usually back down and then regret it. People were amazed at the things they felt able to say to us through the mouth of a snaggle-toothed sock puppet.
Lars and the Real Girl has been compared to films by the Coen Brothers, and it does have a similar feel. It’s set in a nameless Midwestern town, and the residents deal with each others’ eccentricities with a resigned insider acceptance that reminds me a bit of Fargo. What I really loved was the way the people in their community were prepared to interact with Bianca in the end. I think that everyone’s able to project onto her a little bit, and beyond getting used to the strangeness of it, they get genuinely attached to having her around. All the Whos in Whoville are willing to go out of their comfort zone to help Lars, and it’s as if all of their hearts grow two sizes as a result.
Sure, people don’t often respond that well to the bizarre in real life, but people will also surprise you.
alex MacFadyen could not find a way to work this into his article, but he strongly encourages you to check out this link to a Kafka meets Peanuts comic mash-up called Good ol’ Gregor Brown.