When you hear that a movie is about a guy who falls in love with a life-size plastic sex doll, you could be forgiven for expecting a wacky, smutty farce. Or perhaps a creepy psychological chiller. Or maybe a zany, absurdist satire. "Lars and the Real Girl," however, is a heartwarming story about a man who falls for a sex toy. Her name is Bianca. She's half-Danish, half-Brazilian and uses a wheelchair. And he doesn't, apparently, have sex with her.
The young man who falls for her is pathologically shy, emotionally crippled Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling). He lives in a converted garage outside the home of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus's pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer), who adores and worries about her reclusive brother-in-law, a fellow so withdrawn she counts it a triumph if he'll venture inside their home for dinner. In fact, everyone in their small, snow-banked Midwestern town is fond of this very odd duck, for reasons that are never quite explained.
Bianca arrives one day in a large shipping box. Lars unwraps her and, his pride swelling as much as his delusion, introduces her to the family. Needless to say, they are speechless. The wise and unconventional local doctor (Patricia Clarkson), whom Lars is persuaded to see on the pretense that she is treating Bianca, encourages the family—and indeed everyone in this uncommonly tolerant backwater town—to play along with Lars's fantasy, sensing that his "relationship" with Bianca might bring him out of his shell and into the real world.
The audience is being asked the same thing: to suspend our notions of normalcy in the service of a fable about redemption. It's a lot to ask, and I'm not sure screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie quite pull it off, though watching them try is not without its gently daft fascination. What's hard to swallow is not so much Lars's total immersion in his obsession but the sentimental notion of small-town life as an oasis of tolerance. The film's true subject is community, and its benign vision of America could easily come out of a '30s movie, which is surprising from a woman who wrote many episodes of "Six Feet Under."
If "Lars and the Real Girl" works better than it has any right to, it's thanks to the committed cast, who play out the metaphor without winks or coyness. Anyone who's seen Gosling in "Half-Nelson" or "The Believer" knows he's an acting miracle worker, and his pudgy, perplexed, painfully skittish Lars is like nothing he's shown us. He's barely recognizable, so totally does he lose himself in the part. Schneider, whose deep-set eyes and slight spaciness may call Steve Martin to mind, puts a fresh, off-kilter spin on his lines; you might think he was someone found on a Minnesota street and not an actor (that's a compliment). And Clarkson brings a sly playfulness to her therapist role that keeps us guessing: just maybe this doc is a bit pixilated herself.
Gillespie's movie walks a delicate line through a minefield of potential bad taste. Directed with patient, low-key sensitivity, it never goes for a cheap laugh at its protagonist's expense. But the gritty realism of the setting can't totally disguise the sentimental fantasy at the heart of the movie, which to these skeptical eyes seemed more willed than truly earned. To put it another way, I admire what "Lars and the Real Girl" isn't, but I don't quite buy what it is.