'Lars and the Real Girl' Break a Wooden Heart

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Ryan Gosling wears a big, uncomfortable-looking mustache in "Lars and the Real Girl," and the meaning is clear: His character, a misfit in his mid-20s who lives in the garage of his childhood home in a small, unnamed Midwestern town, is trying to convince the world and himself that he's an adult by wearing a disguise.

Lars's brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live in the main house, and despite repeated invitations to join them for meals, Lars keeps obstinately to himself. Karin -- radiant with human kindness -- is worried about Lars, who as if to offset the mustache also walks around wrapped in his own light-blue baby blanket. He clearly has issues, which finally burble up to the surface when he orders a life-size sex toy over the Internet and presents her to his family, church and co-workers as his new girlfriend Bianca, a wheelchair-bound Brazilian missionary.

The trailers for "Lars and the Real Girl" are presenting the movie as a wry, absurdist comedy, a marketing strategy that seemed borne out at a recent preview screening where the audience regularly broke out in guffaws, but I didn't laugh once. This tender, closely observed drama is admittedly shot through with rueful humor. But so badly wanting "Lars and the Real Girl" to be a comedy is to suffer from the same misapprehension -- even delusion -- as the people in Lars's life who focus on the improbably voluptuous synthetic Angelina look-alike, not the man next to her.

At its core, "Lars and the Real Girl" is a medical mystery on a par with the stories of Oliver Sacks, and when Lars and Bianca begin visiting the town's doctor, Dagmar Berman, the pieces to his psycho-emotional puzzle begin to fall into place. (Actually, it's not true that I didn't laugh once during "Lars and the Real Girl." I cracked up when Karin told Gus that their family practice doctor is also a psychologist: "She says she has to be, this far north," she added by way of explanation.)

Dr. Berman is played by the superb Patricia Clarkson, who like Gosling and Mortimer delivers a performance of breathtaking and, finally, deeply moving conviction. In fact, although "Lars and the Real Girl" certainly possesses moments of visually surreal comedy, especially as the town welcomes Bianca into their collective life -- hiring her for part-time positions at the mall, cutting her hair at the salon, electing her to a seat on the school board -- it's really a study in conviction and the Christian love that Lars's Lutheran minister speaks of at the movie's outset. As Lars quietly, desperately comes to the psychic break -- or breakthrough -- that's looming, his family, friends and neighbors fully embrace the notion of the compassionate response, going along with the narrative he's inventing as if in recognition that love means indulging one another's most necessary illusions.

No, I didn't laugh -- much -- during "Lars and the Real Girl," but I almost cried several times, encountering so much spiritual generosity. If the movie occasionally goes overboard in its depiction of Lake Wobegon sweetness, those moments are far outweighed by its rigorous morality, embodied most completely by Clarkson and Mortimer. Their performances -- one as dry as crackling tinder, one as warm as bubbling brown sugar -- act as ballast in a production that otherwise might get carried away by its own conceit, and turn into the episode of "King of the Hill" when Bobby falls in love with Luanne's beauty school practice head. ("Lars and the Real Girl" was written by former "Six Feet Under" writer Nancy Oliver and directed by Craig Gillespie.)

Of course, the real key to "Lars and the Real Girl" is Gosling, who for most of his fans arrived on the scene in 2004 in the romance "The Notebook," but who has been turning in consistently exceptional performances since his breakout lead role in the searing 2001 drama "The Believer." Yet again, he doesn't put a foot wrong as a character who is inert for most of the movie, but whose inner life is in constant motion as he navigates what turns out to be a fraught transition. Gosling's performance as Lars is a small miracle, not only because he's completely, vulnerably open as a man who's essentially shut off, but because he changes and grows so imperceptibly before our eyes. Look carefully at the closing shot of "Lars and the Real Girl," at the set of Gosling's shoulders and the focus of his eyes, and you realize: He's a man who's grown into his mustache.

Lars and the Real Girl (106 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for some sex-related content.

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