Ivan Vukovic revels in the non-dated charm (save for Emily Mortimer’s accent slips) of Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl.
The first time I saw Lars and the Real Girl, I knew nothing about the film, and that was the best possible way to experience it.
I was at a get-together at a friend’s house and the host popped in the recently released DVD (back when that was the sort of thing that you did). He didn’t tell us what it was actually about, but the offbeat nature of the cover didn’t sit well with me at that moment for whatever reason. Maybe I was hoping we were going to spend the evening playing Apples to Apples instead? In any case, my sense of snark was in full force.
“Oh, the opening credits have some indie folk music playing over them,” I said to him. “Cool.”
But whatever cynicism I had about spending the evening watching a 2007 film that looked and felt more like a 1997 film was silenced almost immediately, and it was completely cast aside once the premise revealed itself. I imagine this was my train of thought during that 15-minute mark:
This guy’s a weirdo and kind of frustrating to watch.
Holy shit. He just ordered that expensive sex doll that his co-worker was telling him about. Oh no.
Holy shit. He’s about to introduce that sex doll to his brother and sister-in-law and they’re going to find out what he’s done. Oh. Oh no.
Holy shit. He’s crazy and thinks that sex doll is a real woman and he’s talking to her and stuff. Ooooohhhh noooooo.
This movie marked a point in Ryan Gosling’s career where he had already become Ryan Gosling but he was still a few years away from really becoming Ryan Gosling. By this time, he was the Notebook heartthrob (and if you’re as young as I am you also knew him as Young Hercules and also that guy from that one Goosebumps episode), but we had yet to experience his true breakout wherein he starred in Drive, The Ides of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love all in the same year (!). Lars was actually his final credited performance before a three-year hiatus after which his career truly roared to life.
If it hadn’t been for this movie, I probably would have written him off as somewhat one-note, given how often he’s known to play someone cool and confident (is Gosling-esque a term by now?). A decade and many strong performances later, this is still his most moving and understated role to me. Most Gosling films feature him building a persona around charming wisecracks and rapid-fire back-and-forth. In both here and Drive his performance is driven almost entirely through body language. It’s enchanting.
Since Gosling’s not doing much of the talking, the burden falls on the supporting cast to not only provide exposition but also in almost all cases propel the plot—ordering the doll is just about the only thing Lars actually does through the whole story; everything else happens to him, whether through other characters or the further development of his delusion. Through the lens of today, this not the cast that you would think would have elevated a film the way they did, but it all somehow worked.
Let’s start with Paul Schneider. He still has yet to escape the reputation of being that guy from the first two seasons of Parks & Recreation many considered boring and one of the reasons it took a while for the show to get into its groove. (Side note: I don’t agree with that assessment, but that’s a think piece for another time.) Watching him here again reminded me of just how strong of a supporting actor he is and the level of gravitas he can bring to even the most thankless of roles. We’re rooting for Lars in this movie, but we see everything through the eyes of this brother character and his wife.
Speaking of which: Emily Mortimer. You need look no further than this movie to see why she’s allowed to use her natural English accent in almost all of her other roles, despite the fact that the majority of them in recent memory have been American productions (I mean, have you seen The Newsroom?). Forget about trying to speak like she’s from Wisconsin; even in the scenes where her accent doesn’t slip, you feel a sense of strain and excruciating effort put in just to sound like something vaguely but nonspecifically North American. It’s distracting to watch, but somehow doesn’t completely sink the character, whose combined concern for and criticism of Lars drives the story forward. I’ve watched this movie a handful of times now and by the end of each viewing I think, “Emily Mortimer does such a great job here but why, oh why, did it have to be Emily Mortimer?”
Patricia Clarkson is fantastic as always and plays the minor but pivotal role of the doctor, a character that was almost certainly emphasized and expanded as a result of her casting. Kelli Garner is the non-inanimate love interest and knocks it out of the park as the co-worker who is cute but dorky, alluring to us as the audience but believably not alluring to the disengaged Lars. Everyone else—the churchgoers, the office staff, the brother’s blue collar co-workers—are all used quite effectively to bring the town to life and make pre-recession wintry Wisconsin look like the quaintest and coziest locale you can imagine.
But enough about the real people. Let’s talk about this doll. The way that the film depicts the townspeople going along with Lars’s delusion and treating Bianca as a real person makes it tempting for you as the audience member to slip into the same break from reality. The lakeside scene at the end where we see Lars tearfully kissing Bianca and saying good-bye to her has always been chilling and makes me wonder what could have been.
What kind of effect would have been had by a version of that scene where we finally saw Bianca through Lars’s perspective, briefly coming to life either with or without speaking lines? Would that sort of magical realism cheapen the movie, or would that brief look into Lars’s psyche make that moment even more heartbreaking? I’m not sure I would have taken that gamble, so it’s understandable that the filmmakers didn’t either.
There isn’t a ton in this movie that dates in in any way, save for maybe a single line (“We should get cell phones!”) and the appearance of old bulky white computer monitors. For whatever reason, this brief moment in time—post 9/11 but pre-smartphone America—is one of my favorite eras to see on film; it feels current in almost every single way but manages to avoid having to date itself with references to fleeting digital fads and platforms that are almost essential to include in any film today that wants to feel topical and contemporary. A film like this, especially one set in a small town, doesn’t have to put in special effort to weave around that and it misses nothing by not including those pillars of modern life.
I mean, sure, there’s a scene where Paul Schneider’s character gets angered by a website and removes himself from the situation by turning off the computer monitor, but nothing’s perfect.