The story of a severely dysfunctional young man who falls in love with a sex doll, Lars and the Real Girl polarized audiences during its 2007 theatrical release. If you hated it -- and plenty of critics did -- chances are you couldn't get past a premise that sounded like a Saturday Night Live sketch that didn't make it out of the 8 p.m. dress rehearsal.
If you loved it -- and the movie certainly had its share of defenders -- chances are you were seduced by its tale of heartbreak and a neighborliness not seen since the people of Bedford Falls came to the aid of ol' George Bailey.
Count me in that letter group. Nancy Oliver's brave, brilliant screenplay takes the most patently absurd of scenarios and treats it with warmth and sensitivity. It elicits humor without resorting to cruelty or crassness. Instead of playing for cheap laughs, Oliver and director Craig Gillespie transform Lars and the Real Girl into a bittersweet story of a troubled young man desperate to connect with life and a community that is committed to helping him.
Ryan Gosling gives another Oscar-caliber performance (that he wasn't nominated is a travesty) as Lars Lindstrom. The pathologically shy 27 year old leads a whisper of an existence, living in his deceased father's house with his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). Well, he doesn't live under the same roof, exactly; Lars has taken up residence in the garage apartment, where he panics every time well-meaning Karin invites him to join them for dinner.
Then one day a large crate arrives in the mail. Lars arrives home from work, retrieves it and announces to Gus and Karin a few hours later that he has a female visitor. They are ecstatic. But the guest turns out to be "Bianca," an anatomically correct sex doll bedecked in fishnets and a miniskirt. Despite the doll's utilitarian purposes, Lars explains to his stunned family that Bianca is a wheelchair-bound former missionary, a devout Christian who wants only to help people. Lars is in love. Being a virtuous young couple, however, he asks that Gus and Karin allow Bianca to stay in a spare bedroom in the main house.
Gus and Karin consult a physician/psychologist, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson). After going through the motions of examining the doll, the doctor concludes that Lars is under a delusion he has created to fill an emotional void, and that Gus and Karin really have no choice but to indulge Lars' fantasy until it runs its course.
They grudgingly do so. And in a turn of events worthy of Frank Capra, the other residents in this wintry town eventually come around, too. Bianca is whisked away to do volunteer work in a hospital and read to schoolchildren; she is even elected to the school board. Sure, the corniness is a bit much to swallow, but then again so were Capra movies. A town comprised solely of understanding friends and neighbors is pure fantasy, but it is an affecting and achingly sweet one. If you're willing to meet the film halfway, Lars and the Real Girl enters the realm of the enchanted.
It is courageous filmmaking that dares navigate the line between sentimentality and absurdity. Thankfully, the movie gets things right much more than the inevitable (and minor) stumbles. Moviegoers expecting naughty comedy will be sorely disappointed. There are certainly funny moments (the leading lady is a sex doll, after all), but the humor is always grounded by genuine affection for the psychologically wounded Lars, whose mother died in childbirth and who was left to be raised by a depressed and reclusive father.
Ryan Gosling is astonishing, but that's hardly surprising. He dives into Lars with total conviction. It is a soulful and stirring performance filled with small, extraordinary moments. And he is matched by the always-winning Mortimer as the big-hearted Karin and Schneider as a man caught between repulsion at his brother and guilt over his complicity in Lars' mental illness.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is solid -- crisp lines, vivid colors and inky blacks.
The mix is in 5.1 Dolby Surround. Audio was clear, albeit unremarkable, with no distortion or drop-out. A Spanish track is also available in 5.1 Surround. Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
The film deserves better than the perfunctory treatment it receives here. The Real Story of Lars and the Real Girl (10:10) is standard promotional fare, although it includes a few nuggets about the degree of preparatory work Gosling did for the role. Oliver recalls how the story idea came to her after she stumbled across the website for RealDolls.
A Real Leading Lady is a bit of fluff in which cast and crew dish about Bianca as if she were real. Gosling is particularly funny, but this joke is stretched mighty thin at nearly six minutes.
Also included is a 42-second deleted scene of Lars and Bianca in a bathtub, as well as a theatrical trailer and trailers of Death at a Funeral and Bonneville.
Irony-drenched cynics will be disappointed, but misty-eyed moviegoers willing to meet Lars and the Real Girl halfway will find an achingly sweet and touching film. While the so-so supplemental material is less impressive, the DVD release offers a much-deserved second life for this offbeat and absorbing work.