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Film Review: “Lars and the Real Girl”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: MGM

Bianca (a sex doll from RealDoll in San Marcos) and Lars (Ryan Gosling) share a quiet moment in "Lars and the Real Girl."

Companion viewing

Mannequin

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Blade Runner

Pinnochio

Bride of Chucky

All the Real Girls

The Fuccons” (this actually isn't good but it is genuinely weird and has to be seen to be believed, its a sitcom from Japan in which everyone is a mannequin)

“Lars and the Real Girl” (opening Oct. 26 throughout San Diego) uses a sex doll from the San Marcos company RealDoll as partial inspiration for its story.

Generally speaking, dolls usually end up in three types of movies: kiddie films, in which they are cute girlie toys; horror films, in which they're usually possessed by someone's souls and come to life to kill; and gross out comedies, in which they are blow up sex dolls.

“Lars and the Real Girl” strives for something bigger, both in terms of the size of the doll and the type of film it wants to be, which is a sweet romantic comedy.

OK, if you grew up in the '80s, you probably have a vague memory of a goofball comedy called “Mannequin,” in which Andrew McCarthy created a perfect mannequin (Kim Cattrall) that he falls in love with. So maybe Lars doesn't break genuinely new ground, but it does strive for sweet and low-key comedy rather than revved up brat pack comic giddiness.

The perpetually dewy eyed Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a solitary soul who lives in the garage of his dead father's home while his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) live in the main house. Lars hides in the garage, afraid to come out, even for breakfast. But he does manage to hold down a job, and one day at work, someone shows him a Web site where you can construct the perfect woman and then have the life-size sex doll sent to you. Lars orders one, and when she arrives, he unpacks her from the box and introduces her to everyone in his small town as his girlfriend Bianca from the tropics of Brazil. Surprisingly, everyone welcomes her with open arms in the hopes that this will help the introverted Lars. Most eager to see him emerge from this as a more warm and open human being are the local doctor/psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) and an enamored cubicle-mate Margo (Kelli Garner). Dagmar insists that this is just Lars' way of working through some emotional issues.

“Lars and the Real Girl” is a product of director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver. He's fresh from directing “Mr. Woodcock” and she's from “Six Feet Under.” Oliver's credits imply that she should be good with inanimate objects and the deliberately quirky. I'm not sure what Gillespie brings to the table. The main problem for me was that the film wanted us to be deeply touched at the end and to even weep, but it never earned those emotions. The filmmakers never find the right balance of emotion and humor to make the film work. Too often I found myself laughing at it because I wasn't moved by the characters or the forced warmth the film tried to generate.

The only time the film finds the right tone is in the scenes with Patricia Clarkson. She displays the delicate balance necessary to pull this kind of thing off. Her soft gentle vocal tones and easy acceptance of Bianca as a real person play beautifully in the film. She makes me believe that Lars can be cured of his delusion because the depth of her caring feels real. But that's the only real thing in the film, everything else feels forced. This is like “Twin Peaks” grafted onto “Lake Wobegon” and then covered in heavy syrup -- the result is icky, sweet, small town quirkiness.

Gosling adds to the problems because he doesn't make me buy into the situation. His Lars is supposed to be so shy and withdrawn that he won't have breakfast with his genuinely nice sister-in-law; and the physical touch of anyone is genuinely painful. Yet he seems perfectly capable of going to work everyday and engaging at some level with the people in his office. If the film wants me to buy that he's so over the edge that he would buy an anatomically correct doll and think she's real, then I need to believe that he's got some serious social problems. The way Gosling plays Lars he seems, dare I say, too normal and Gosling seems to be smirking at us saying com’on buy into this.

Part of the blame for this must be shared by the director who sets up scenes with contrivance so that each awkward situation can be milked for a gag. Let's have Lars bring Bianca to church, then to a party, or maybe he can have a fight with her in the car. These scenes play out like sitcom gags that Gillespie drags out, waiting for the laugh track to kick in. Now the idea of a man believing an Internet sex doll is real may sound quirky, but in the hands of Gillespie and Oliver, it plays out rather blandly. Plus the real girl in the film, Margo, comes across as an artificially cute young adult who still wears barrettes in her hair and is attached to her teddy bear (I'm sure she's also the type to end her emails in little smiley faces and to dot her "i's" with a little heart.)

All right, maybe that's being too harsh on poor little patient Margo. But “Lars and the Real Girl” is a film that just began to irritate me as it went on and it went on for far longer than its one-joke premise could ever be expected to sustain. For my taste, I rather watch Japanese anime where they frequently serve up dolls, inanimate objects, or cyborg types that manage to prove their humanity despite their lack of flesh and blood.

“Lars and the Real Girl” (rated PG-13 for some sex-related content) is ultimately too precious for my taste. While the title is ironic, the film itself strives hard to avoid irony. It wants us to take everything at face value: Lars has a girlfriend who's a doll and everyone buys into it. Lars sheds his protective outer shell just as he peels away the layers of protective outer clothing to reveal a soft pink shirt underneath. Despite all the quirky trappings, this is a film that's all about giving us the obvious.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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