Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mannequin Love: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars Linstrom, a reclusive young man in some unnamed northern town, hides in his brother’s garage. He goes dutifully to church and to work at his anonymous Office Space job, but his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) thinks he spends too much time alone. One evening, she even tackles him in the driveway so he’ll eat dinner with her and her husband, Lars’ brother Gus (played by Paul Schneider). Six weeks later, Lars shows up at Karin’s door and proclaims “I have a visitor and she’s not from here.” Before we know it, we see Lars proudly sitting next to “Bianca,” talking to her, and introducing her as “a missionary” who is “half-Brazilian, half-Danish.” Neither Karin nor Gus know what to say or do, and neither does the audience of the film. How does one react--with alarm, amusement, or scorn? From that point on, the screenwriter, Nancy Oliver defies our guesses as to what will happen next, and the film keeps us off-balance. When you might expect Lars to suffer mockery and further isolation for his rubber paramour, the townspeople, though initially leery and shocked, often prove surprisingly understanding of Lars’ problem.

The film works mostly due to the unexpected creative ways that the town community responds to Bianca. For instance, when it becomes clear that Lars is delusional, Karin contrives a way for Bianca to visit local Dr. Dagmar, who can then surreptitiously give Lars some psychological help. As played with serene intelligence by Patricia Clarkson, the doctor unrealistically recommends to Karin and Gus that they “just go with it” for now, and let Lars’ delusions run their course. When Gus says that everyone will laugh at him, Dr. Dagmar matter-of-factly adds “and you.”

But once the church community catches on, and the minister allows Lars to bring Bianca to the service, the tone of the film changes from cringe-worthy dismay to something like nervous acceptance. On one level, Bianca serves as training wheels for Lars to learn about human interaction. He becomes more confident socially, and yet he remains chaste around Bianca. He insists on placing her in the spare bedroom of his brother’s house, and he courts her instead of crassly sleeping with her. With his talk of her being a “missionary raised by nuns,” one notices that there’s something almost religious in his affection for it, and basically this sick mixture of a fetishized rubber doll combined with devotion gives the film its queasy/sweet flavor.

If Ryan Gosling ever let on for a second that he’s not completely committed in his relationship with Bianca, the fragile mood of the film would have been destroyed, but he treats his role seriously. When he bends over Bianca after breakfast to say, “You look really pretty today,” he’s convincing. Gosling also uses some sly James Dean techniques for stealing his scenes, such as when he gives mouth to mouth resuscitation to a teddy bear, or when he plays with a sculpture found in the doctor’s office. Like Dean, he finds ways to occupy his hands to draw attention to himself, and his playing of the role comes off as endearing when it could have very easily been merely creepy. He reminded me of some holy innocent figure like Peter Sellers’ Chance Gardener in Being There, who fools everyone by remaining serene no matter what happens to him, or Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man, Raymond Babbitt. Like Raymond, Lars does not like to be touched, so his every gesture becomes a tentative attempt to reach beyond his isolation.

Instead of flattering the immature male, Lars and the Real Girl meditates on the nature of human affection, the rites of passage for men, and the way a community can support its own. All of these themes could have been sentimental, but the continual presence of a corpse-like buxom rubber woman with blank staring eyes keeps the film from ever getting too sweet. Perhaps Lars attests to the delusional quality of romance, but he also conveys its tender appeal, however misguided.

No comments: