Photo: ‘Lars and the Real Girl’
We take Ryan Gosling for granted now. The Canadian powerhouse has been with us for about two decades now, and ever since his star-making role in ‘The Notebook’ back in 2004, he’s been one of Hollywood’s go-to male heartthrobs. Being a pretty face in the industry has its drawbacks, though, and while people generally like Gosling, it seems that his acting prowess has gone undervalued. Two decades and the man has only two Oscar nominations so far; it’s scandalous. Gosling garnered a Best Actor nomination for ‘Half Nelson’ in 2007, and again for ‘La La Land’ in 2017. Scandalous. I say this as someone who, ten years ago, would have been one of those people who wrote off Gosling as all beauty and no talent, and while he is certainly an exemplar of the male form, he’s also one of the finest male actors currently gracing Hollywood’s presence.
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Rather than being a one-trick pony, Gosling’s method is shockingly dexterous, and even more shockingly subtle; his performances are often of the kind which would not work on the stage, but rather require the intimacy of a close-up.
‘Half Nelson’ earned Gosling his first Oscar nomination, and while the film is quite good, his follow-up in 2008, ‘Lars and the Real Girl’, is the role that represents the type of actor Gosling was always meant to be. It showed Gosling at his best — at least, up to that point in his career. Directed by Craig Gillespie, and written by Nancy Oliver, ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ is a movie that sounds like it should be a disaster: “A delusional young man strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the internet.” In most hands, this would in fact be a mess, slated for the grindhouse, especially because the “doll” in question is a sex doll; you can already imagine the potential hijinks. Yet they made it work.
Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a socially awkward man living in a small town who one day, for reasons eluding everyone else, orders a sex doll online. Even more mysteriously, and far more bafflingly, Lars treats the sex doll, whom he calls Bianca, as if she were a real person, and actually his girlfriend. Lars’s brother and the brother’s wife (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, respectively) are at first unsure what to do with Lars, who seems to have totally lost his mind, but their innate kindness leads to them playing along with the man’s dream and treat Bianca like she’s a real person as well. You may struggle to imagine Gosling playing a socially inept guy convincingly, but he plays Lars completely sincerely, and despite being conventionally attractive, it’s easy to see why Lars would have a hard time finding a real girlfriend. Maybe it’s the character’s mustache? Without changing himself much physically, Gosling is able to embody the incel convincingly.
A Quirky Movie Gives Way to a Vulnerable Performance
Some people will go into ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ expecting big laughs, but the humor of this movie is dead-pan and uncomfortable. The key with ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ is that we’re not laughing at Lars’s delusions, but rather we’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts to play along with him. Lars is a likable protagonist in how both comedic and tragic he is. He is good at heart. His brother and sister-in-law, his doctor (Patricia Clarkson), and the townspeople reckon with the way they see other people in order to accept this man who’s barely capable of hurting a fly. Lars is a sensitive man haunted by past traumas; he’s afraid of intimacy, both physical and emotional.1. All too often we have characters in movies suffering from mental illness being painted as villains, or dangerous, but Lars is a man struggling with mental illness who easily shows himself to be good.
Ultimately, the film is about people’s delusions and how common they actually are. Lars is shown to be the most extreme case, but all the townspeople are shown to have their own little quirks. The film seems to be saying, “So what if someone is sensitive? If they’re kind, and they’re open to people helping them, then they ought to not be treated as the enemy.” Kindness is king in this movie; it makes the plot plausible, and gives life to Lars, a character who very easily could’ve been played as a fool. Between the emotionally honest screenplay and Gosling’s performance, Lars’s relationship with Bianca becomes real. As someone who has social anxiety, I have to admit I also relate to Lars to an extent.
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What helps is that even putting Gosling aside, the other performances are great. Perhaps most impressive is Emily Mortimer as Karin, the sister-in-law, who acts as the closest thing the film has to an emotional center; it’s her idea, after all, to embrace Lars in the hopes of helping him. Mortimer’s performance is superb, granting the plot a degree of realism that would be missing without her. Overall, this is a movie that delivers bitter laughs and equally bitter drama, all while feeling “real” to us; it’s a comedy that’s just as likely to make you cry as it is to make you laugh.
An Actor Who Explores Human Emotions
Ryan Gosling is sometimes criticized for playing “stoic” characters, but his emotional range is quite impressive when you look at his body of work. This is a man who, in the span of just a few years, played a greedy Wall Street slimeball (‘The Big Short’), a goofball loser detective (‘The Nice Guys’), an artist trying to stay true to his passion (‘La La Land’), and an android searching for his own humanity (‘Blade Runner 2049’), all convincingly. Maybe more than any other male actor in recent years, Gosling seems determined to ask the important question, “What does it mean to be human?” through his performances. Does it help that Gosling is a hunk? Sure. The truth is that Gosling has been a highly promising actor for twenty years, and he’s been more or less sidelined by the “prestigious” side of the film industry. ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ is, the actor’s first great performance, and the biggest statement from his early career, telling us he’s here to stay.
‘Lars and the Real Girl’ is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
By Brian Collins
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