8. Lars and the Real Girl
It’s at this point in the “top 100” list that my own personal preferences in cinema start to come into focus, and perhaps nowhere as much as with “Lars and the Real Girl.” I love this movie, love love love it, and I don’t think it made any other critic’s decade list, or even close. I would say that I love it for personal reasons, but my wife loves it too — it’s probably the only movie on my top 10 list she’ll willingly watch with me — so I think it must have more to do with the choices I’ve made in my life, the things I value, and the things that are closest to my heart. Suffice it to say if you’re like me, you’ll love this move. And if you’re not, you may wonder what all the fuss is about.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is technically an indie comedy, but I think it functions best as a fable. The main characters act with perfect integrity — by which I mean they never make a choice that seems out of line with who they’ve been so far — but they live in the world that’s not quite real. Or maybe it’s just North Dakota.
There’s something wrong with Lars, but nobody’s sure what it is. He’s pathologically shy, avoids human contact, and lives out in the garage of his brother’s home. But he’s a sweet guy, and nobody doubts that he’s harmless. He’s just…touched somehow. Major kudos to Ryan Gosling for bringing this home; he could have gone for the Oscar in this Oscar bait-y role, but instead, it makes Lars small, and true, and real. We all know someone like Lars.
His brother’s wife, played by Emily Mortimer, wants so much to have a good relationship with Lars. She worries about him. She invites him to breakfast. In one of my favorite scenes, she stops him in the driveway and tries to get him to come and eat dinner with her and her husband. When he tries to evade her, she tackles him. “I made pasta!” she yells, and while that sounds like something out of “Meet the Fockers,” it plays with such tenderness and wry humor that it almost always brings a tear to my eye. This is a hard movie to write about; nothing looks on the page like it plays on the screen.
For instance. Lars buys a sex doll off the internet, and starts carting her around and talking to her like she’s a real person. His family is shocked, and they take him to see the town doctor, who is also a psychologist (“you have to be, out here,” she quips) who encourages them to play along. He’s working something out for himself, and resistance from his family and friends is just going to make things harder.
And so they do. They pretend that the sex doll is a real person, and they encourage their friends to do so as well. This is where the movie heads into the land of fable; everyone in town plays along. Before long, Bianca is “reading” to kids at school and getting makeovers at the salon. She even lands a part-time job. There are no nasty kids or mean drunks or ugly insecure people in this North Dakota town; everyone is patient and understanding. Of course that’s not real, but isn’t that the most beautiful way for a movie to depart from reality?
Really, that’s what “Lars and the Real Girl” is really about. The dustjacket will say it’s about a delusional man and his sex doll; visions of Farrelly brothers comedies are bound to dance through your head. I say it’s about the vision of an understanding and supportive community that helps a deeply wounded man work through his issues and move towards health and wholeness. I think “Lars and the Real Girl” works in the same way that Flannery O’Connor’s stories often work; the characters behave in extreme ways to get the creator’s point across, but if you scale them back a little, you start to see yourself. And the point sinks in. I look at Lars and see myself and my own need for a loving community that will allow me to work through my own issues, in whatever bizarre, curious, unusual or ridiculous way works. I think that’s a universal need, and a deep truth. And that’s why “Lars and the Real Girl” is one of my favorite movies, not just of this decade, but of all time.