The Hook: A bizarre and unique indie love story about loss and emotional recovery, which is supported by a host of really great performances and beautifully desolate cinematography.
The Story: Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a 27-year-old living in a small northern town, who is unable to have a normal relationship. He lives in a converted garage of his parents' old house, while his brother and sister-in-law occupy the house. Lars goes to work and church, is beloved by his community, but is clearly lonely. Yet in spite of everyone's encouragement to find someone special--who is obviously his lovely and adoring coworker Margo--Lars won't interact with women. So everyone is shocked when he announces that he's found someone on the internet. Shock turns to astonishment and dismay when his "girlfriend" turns out to be a lifelike mannequin whom he calls Bianca. Lars' brother and sister-in-law fear he's finally flipped his lid, as Lars treats Bianca as a living breathing person, with a complete life story. However, with the assistance of a psychologist (Patricia Clarkson), they agree to play along with Lars' delusion and accept "Bianca" as a member of the community.
Where It Could Have Gone Wrong (and Thankfully Didn't): "Bianca" is not just a life-sized mannequin--she's a sex-doll that Lars ordered from the internet. HOWEVER, he never uses her for her intended "purpose." That was my first concern when I heard about this film, because otherwise that would have just been sleazy and gross. However, Lars' relationship with Bianca is "PG" rated throughout, with the most intimate physical interaction being a sad kiss near the end of the film. In many ways, Lars' romantic relationship with Bianca is like a child's understanding of love and romance. Bianca is his friend, his trusted confidante, whom he adores and tries to impress and make happy. There are a few veiled and glancing references to Bianca's true nature made by other characters, but the dialogue never veers into unsavory territory. The film has a PG-13 rating, but I think that's more for the premise and plot points than for anything in particular that's said. Point of fact, Lars asks if Bianca can stay in the guest room of the house with his brother and sister, since it wouldn't be right for two single people to stay in the same garage apartment.
Where It Goes Right: The film is about love, but not just Lars' love for a plastic/silicone doll he sees as a person. The strongest displays of love in the film are the love that Lars' brother and sister-in-law have for him, and the love that the community has for him. This was a point of contention for reviewer Richard Roeper, who was disappointed that everyone played along. He was hoping for an "emperor-has-no-clothes" moment. But it's hilarious and heart-warming to watch this small community (which knows Lars and his family's history) stand with him and treat Bianca as a real person, as he does (to the point at which she has her own "schedule" and interactions apart from him).
One of the many moments in this movie that I loved was when Lars' brother and sister met with the elders of their church and tried to explain what was going on. While some of the men were appalled, the priest quietly said, "In this situation, as in all situations, we must ask ourself one question: what would Jesus do?" The audience in my theater all laughed; but I smiled because I knew that he was on to something there. The next scene showed Bianca sitting in church with Lars and the others, holding a hymnal. Ignoring the gawking stares of the parishioners, the priest welcomed "all our visitors." Maybe it's a weird situation to break out the WWJD, but you ask yourself, what can I do that is most loving, for someone who has a harmless but unusual delusion? I think he found the right answer there.
Of course, you expect that Lars will end up with Margo, the sweet, caring, slightly goofy coworker who makes moon-eyes at him throughout the film. The fascinating thing is watching Lars realize that he could love her back, and wrestle with whether he can risk it (or whether he can "cheat" on Bianca). Their chemistry is fascinating to watch, like two timid deer slowing approaching each other but always ready to retreat.
The Heart of the Film: The final act really gives the film its real punch. Spoilers to follow, in red:
Lars "discovers" that Bianca is in a coma, and is unresponsive. They take her to the hospital, and there Lars tells them that Bianca is dying. When his sister-in-law demands of the psychologist, "How could you let this happen?," she replies, "I didn't. This is all him." See, Lars never knew his mother, who died giving him birth. Lars was raised by his father, a man who by all accounts was broken by the loss of his wife and never recovered emotionally. Lars' brother ran away from it all as soon as he could and only returned when his father died. So Lars was raised in a "house of sorrow," so to speak, and never had any loving female influences. His relational development was so stunted that he cannot endure the touch of another person; it actually gives him pain, like a "burn" of a numb hand thawing. The scenes in which the psychologist and Lars are working through this are painful and heart-wrenching to watch.
So when Lars announced that Bianca was dying, it came clear for me. He needed to mourn her, as he could not mourn his mother. Without getting too Oedipal here (because I think it would do a disservice to the film), Bianca was in a sense his making up for not having a relationship with his mother. The single mouth to mouth "kiss" they share was practically a kiss goodbye, as he knew her time was coming to a close. Once he was able to mourn Bianca (with a full funeral and burial that the townsfolk gladly participated in), you saw a change occur in him, as if he was finally able to shake off the shroud that had been hanging over his life. And the last moment, with Lars and Margo at the graveside, is lovely. Lars, having been released from the weight of his guilt and sadness, turns to Margo, smiles, and says, "Do you want to take a walk?" She's stunned, and thrilled, and barely sputters out, "Yes." As the credits roll, you know that these two kids are going to be okay.
Final Analysis: "Lars and the Real Girl" is a bizarre film with a somewhat shocking and unusual premise. There are even a few moments in the film where you wonder if it will turn into a horror film about a "quiet man" who goes nuts. But in the end, it's about love: the love of children for parents, of siblings for each other, of a town for its members, and of a lonely man for a lonely girl.
If you can get past the concept, it's well worth your eight (or ten) bucks. Go see it with someone you love (or want to love).