So when we were discussing the representation of Lutherans in film, a commenter (in my Twitter feed?) mentioned a title I had missed: Lars and the Real Girl. I missed it because I had not seen it. Now I have.
When the film was released in 2007 I assumed, wrongly, and apparently like so many others as the film made no money in theaters, that it was a pervy sex comedy about a man and his blow-up doll. Could not be further from the truth. This was one of the most lovable and charming flicks I’ve seen in a long time.
There are few films that surprise me. At first I thought this was going to be a Pirandellian deal, something akin to Henry IV, in which we learn that the “crazy” may in fact be faking so as to shine a light on the community around him, But no, that’s not what’s going on either.
Screenwriter Nancy Oliver got the idea for the film after stumbling on an actual “build your own girlfriend” website. She also wanted to explore alternative ways of coming to terms with the mentally ill among us, especially since the spectrum of what constitutes mental illness is rather wide. Here our hero, Lars (Ryan Gosling), is depicted as someone so drawn into himself that not only can he barely hold a conversation, he cannot bear even to be touched. Lars’s pathology is rooted in the death of his mother in childbirth, and his subsequent abandonment by his older brother, Gus, who took off as soon as he was old enough, leaving his younger brother with a depressive and dysfunctional father. When Gus returns to the family home with his wife, he consigns Lars to life in the adjacent converted garage.
Lars is 27 and single (naturally) and so what do most people try to do, especially his pregnant and overly concerned sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer)? Encourage him to get out there and meet someone nice. Well, Lars finally announces to his brother and sister-in-law that he has a girlfriend, someone he met on the Internet, someone from overseas, someone who happens to be in a wheelchair, someone very religious and not comfortable staying in the same garage with Lars given that they’re not married. Gus and Karin are thrilled and agree to allow Gus’s new “friend,” Bianca, to stay with them in the house.
And then they meet Bianca — a life-size, anatomically correct doll
When Gus and Karin consult a doctor, they are advised not to try and disabuse Lars of his delusion but rather to accommodate it. Lars, apparently, is trying to work something out in his head, in his life, and this doll, this companion, is the means by which he is doing it.
So Gus and Karin welcome Bianca into the family. As does the rest of their northern (Minnesotan?) community, such that Bianca winds up working at the local hospital to help cheer up sick kids and is treated to free hair stylings at everyone’s favorite salon and is invited to parties where she “dances” with one of the hosts.
This film is not about alternative lifestyles. It’s not even about Lars and his delusion. It’s about how the town in which he lives enters into his delusion so as to remain close to him during his crisis. It’s not about a man who loves a doll — it’s about a town who loves a man who loves a doll. The members of Lars’s community are able to express that love in such a self-giving way because they know at some deep level that they, too, are delusional — that they are both sane and crazy, just as they learn (I expect) in the Lutheran church they all attend that they are both saints and sinners. And it is through Lars’s coping mechanism that his brother and so many other members of the community come to terms with their own coping mechanisms and unmet needs.
What can I say about Ryan Gosling’s performance? It was touching without ever being cloying and sad without ever being maudlin. There are scenes that are supernaturally sweet because they’re so small, and about small things — the small things people do sometimes to alleviate someone else’s pain, for example when Lars performs CPR on a distraught colleague’s stuffed bear.
Oh yes, the Lutheran church. Hardcore confessional types will roll their eyes at the pietistic, touchy-feely, WWJD approach to faith. But in the end, the church aids in Lars’s healing. Rather than bashing him with the law — the law that teaches us what it means to be “normal” — they shower him with grace, and even accept Bianca into the congregation. They could consign him to outer darkness as a form of tough love, of preaching the cold hard truth, which is to say, that he’s bananas. Or they can admit that loving Lars means loving sick Lars, a Lars that we learn is terrified that his pregnant sister-in-law may die in childbirth too. His fears may not necessarily be our fears, but we all fear something. And to be abandoned only makes that something worse.
So for those who have not yet seen it, I heartily recommend you rent Lars and the Real Girl. Then rent Drive. Yowza.
ADDENDUM: My friend (and author) Lars Walker had this comment that I’d like to address: “My main problem with the story was what seemed like a complete lack of Original Sin in the community. I find it hard to believe any town has no cruel people.” There is a scene in a bowling alley in which Lars, on a not-date date with Margo, a colleague who has the biggest crush on him, is bowling about as badly as it is possible to bowl. But the fact that he is doing something, anything, social with a woman not purchased on the Internet is progress. Suddenly, four teens enter the alley only to discover that there are no empty lanes. Then they spy Lars. They all know about Lars and his other “girlfriend.” “Here it comes,” I said to myself. In any other movie, those teens would have turned thuggish and either physically assaulted or at least humiliated Lars in front of Margo. Didn’t happen. Again, when you think the film is turning right, it goes left. This is deliberate. We can all imagine scenes in which Lars and Bianca are assaulted, in which Lars is beaten up and his “girlfriend” torn to shreds — or worse, violated. We can imagine Lars descending into a deeper madness — or being scared straight, waking up from his delusion to what the world really is, a place where people do terrible things for sport, and mothers die in childbirth, and brothers abandon you, and you can’t bear to be touched. And locking himself away from that world forever. But I believe screenwriter Nancy Oliver, again, wanted to imagine something else. Another way. Another world in which people were free to act in another way — even free from the worst their natures have to offer. Is this real life? Is this realistic? Of course not. But who the hell needs more real life?