I watched 'Lars and the Real Girl' for the first time in 2013 or 2014 and didn't think much of it. Something prompted me to watch it again, though, in 2015; I believe it was a review I happened to read that noted that the film portrays Lars's Christian church in a positive manner. Since that's a rare thing in most movies these days -- even though I couldn't remember any church scenes from my first viewing, the comment (and a few other positive elements mentioned in the review) made me think, why not give this one another shot?
So I did. And upon watching a second time, I discovered that -- for having such a STUPID-sounding premise (a man touts around a *sex doll* and calls it his girlfriend? really?!) 'Lars and the Real Girl' turned out to be a fairly interesting and surprisingly gentle film.
Ryan Gosling stars in the movie as Lars -- a shy, socially awkward man in his late 20's who lives in the garage adjacent to his brother and sister-in-law's house in Somewhere, Wisconsin (the movie was actually filmed in Ontario).
One day, after Lars's co-worker shows him a website for "real dolls" (read: blow-up sex dolls), Lars orders one for himself (offscreen). After the doll arrives, Lars happily introduces his new girlfriend "Bianca" to his brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karen. At first, Gus and Karen are excited to hear that Lars "met somebody"; but naturally, (though they don't mention it to Lars) Gus and Karen are horrified to see that "Bianca" is really just some sex doll. They're even more horrified to hear Lars speaking sincerely of Bianca -- and TO Bianca -- as though she's an actual, living and breathing person.
Nevertheless, Gus and Karen awkwardly play along with the scenario. Under the guise of giving Bianca a "check-up", they take Lars and Bianca to see Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), their family doctor who just happens to also be a psychologist. At the doctor's office, Dagmar privately encourages Gus and Karen to KEEP treating Bianca as though she's a real person -- explaining this to them as some sort of therapy for Lars. Dagmar then instructs Lars to bring Bianca in to her office a few times each week for treatment for her "low blood pressure"; Dagmar plans to use Bianca's "treatment" time to talk with Lars and try to figure out the underlying cause of his delusion.
Gus, Karen, Lars, and "Bianca" agree to all of this -- though Gus in particular shows some reservation. Still, Gus and Karen quietly fill some of the residents of their (one-horse) town in on the situation; and before long, seemingly the entire town has welcomed Bianca with open arms! Including Margo -- the real (human) girl who works with Lars, and who eventually plays an important role in his (and Bianca's) outcome.
The movie still sounds really stupid described in detail, I know. However, strangely enough... it kind of works. There's nothing mean-spirited about the story; and (other than the fact that Bianca's for whatever reason a blow-up doll) nothing else crude or cheap-humored in the script (there are hardly even any references to sex, aside from a few very mild jokes). The film doesn't make fun of Lars, nor (for the most part) does he come across as a saintly "Gary Stu".
As for portraying Lars's church in a positive manner -- indeed, there are several scenes where Lars, Gus, Karen, Margo, and even "Bianca" attend a Lutheran church (and one scene where the pastor and some church members visit Gus and Karen at home). Most of these scenes are pretty brief (which is probably why they didn't stick with me after the first time I watched the film); but, yes, Lars's pastor and fellow church members come across as likable and support Lars 100% just like the other folks in his town (and, yes, it's a nice change of pace to see a church in an otherwise secular movie depicted as just a positive part of the characters' day-to-day lives, rather than filled with "foolish" or "evil" religious stereotypes).
So, why did I give 'Lars and the Real Girl' only 3 stars? Although I did like it a lot better the second time that I watched it, my main problem with the movie is that it simply requires too much suspension of disbelief. Some viewers might not mind this; and even I was willing to suspend my disbelief to an extent.
For example, on the one hand, I could easily buy that the townsfolk felt compassionate toward Lars (no disbelief there); I also accepted that they wouldn't feel bothered by Lars carting Bianca around town everywhere he went (it was a bit more of a stretch to believe that so many of Lars's neighbors would be so eager to *also* tote her around -- or "take her out" to "volunteer" or whatever they claimed to be doing. But the townspeople all seemed to like Gus, Karen, and Lars -- and it WAS a small town, and perhaps they welcomed the change in routine -- so this eagerness to "help" with Bianca wasn't outright impossible to swallow.)
On the other hand -- the "hospital" scene and the location of the final scene just felt like a bit TOO much. Um, those places would cost a lot of money (as would the appointments with Dagmar -- though Dagmar at least used her appointments with "Bianca" as a cover for providing therapy for Lars). Were Gus and Karen secretly millionaires? And what about the real people who might actually *need* the services that were provided for Bianca?
Aside from the "suspension of disbelief" issue, there are a handful of moments in 'Lars' that are borderline cutesy/overly sentimental -- particularly the scenes with Margo (I didn't mind her character per se, but she WAS kind of cutesy at times). Karen's pregnancy also felt a bit contrived (though, for all I know, Emily Mortimer was pregnant in real life. But since the character's obvious pregnancy is barely touched on, I was prepared for some cringe-worthy "wacky pregnant lady" scenes -- or for some speech about how the new baby symbolized the miracle of life. Fortunately, these moments never came.) Still, despite the occasional giggly moment from Margo -- or crooning serenade from Lars -- the movie at least manages to avoid total schmaltz overload.
Regarding the cast: no offense to Ryan Gosling, but I wouldn't have minded if somebody else had played Lars; that said, he does a fine job with the role. I wasn't familiar with most of the other actors -- however, they all give respectable performances, including Mortimer (although she sounded like she needed a lozenge in the outdoor scene where Karen argues with Lars) and the always-reliable Clarkson.
One actor I WAS familiar with prior to watching 'Lars' (and pleasantly surprised to see pop up in a minor-yet-significant role as a co-worker who briefly dates Margo) is Billy Parrott; those who watched "Degrassi Junior High" might remember him as "Shane McKay" on that classic Canadian show.
Ultimately, even with its flaws, 'Lars and the Real Girl' is still worth a watch for anybody who prefers quirky, character-driven stories about small town-life to movies filled with nothing but crude bathroom humor or nonstop action. (6/10)