At 26, Ryan Gosling has already emerged as one of his generation’s most talented actors, versatile in subtle, unflashy ways that don’t always get mainstream notice. (The great “Half Nelson” and “The Believer” remain underseen, while “The Notebook” is his major box office success.) His latest, “Lars and the Real Girl,” works — and works amazingly well — because of his performance as a reclusive, socially awkward man who buys a life-size, anatomically correct rubber sex doll … and falls in love with her. There are a million ways this film could go wrong, and it succumbs to none of them.
Having heard the premise, many readers no doubt have already decided not to see it, because who needs to see a movie about a sex doll? But one of the film’s delightful surprises is that it has no sex, real, implied, or rubberized. Lars is a chaste Lutheran, so he and the doll sleep in separate beds. The one thing her designers had in mind for her is the one use she’s never put to. The movie isn’t about sex; there isn’t any for it to be about. It’s about emotional connection, and for some reason Lars has an emotional connection to an inanimate object.
Lars is an odd duck, to put it mildly. He and his older brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), inherited their parents’ house, which Gus and his pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) occupy while Lars lives in the converted garage. This is by Lars’ choice, and so are the other aspects of his solitary, quiet life. He’s painfully shy and socially awkward — not prickly at all (he’s always smiling), but simply ill-at-ease with other humans. When his sister-in-law hugs him, he’s physically hurt by the gentle contact.
Despite his unsocial behavior, or maybe because of it, Lars is well liked by everyone in the small, wintry Wisconsin-or-maybe-Minnesota town where the film is set. His co-workers at his undefined cubicle-based job include him in their activities. One in particular, Margo (Kelli Garner), tries to ask him on dates, but Lars is impervious to hints.
Then Lars’ shipment arrives. Her name is Bianca. He introduces her to Gus and Karin as his girlfriend; they met online; now she has come to live with him, though he’d like her to stay in Gus and Karin’s guest bedroom for propriety’s sake. Gus and Karin are stunned, obviously. Lars treats Bianca like a real person, never giving the slightest hint that he knows she is not. When Gus firmly declares that Bianca is made of plastic, Lars simply ignores him.
They take Lars and Bianca to the doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who is also a psychologist. (“You have to be both up here,” Karin says, hinting at the depression and loneliness endemic in the cold northlands.) Under the guise of examining Bianca, Dagmar psychoanalyzes Lars. Her diagnosis: He’ll snap out of the delusion “when he doesn’t need it anymore.” In the meantime, no purpose would be served in trying to make him face reality. He has to work through this in his own time.
And so the entire town goes along with it. They pretend Bianca is as real as Lars seems to think she is. Bianca gets a part-time job as a mannequin at the mall. She volunteers at the hospital by “reading” to sick children. (The nurses prop a book in her hands and turn on the audiobook version.) Only a few townspeople are initially skeptical, and that dissolves over time. There are no judgments about Lars’ weirdness because, let’s be honest, we all have something weird about us. The pastor at the Lutheran church asks his parishioners, “What would Jesus do?,” and while that question has become a punchline in recent years, the answer is still obvious to them: Jesus would accept Lars despite his eccentricities. Furthermore, he would do whatever is best for Lars’ mental health.
You have to take the film as a fable and not as a strictly realistic account of rural America. It’s valid to point out that in real life there’s no way the entire town would humor Lars — but only because in real life, “entire towns” don’t do anything. You accept it as a necessary element of the story.
Written by Nancy Oliver (TV’s “Six Feet Under”) and directed by Craig Gillespie (after his recent half-direction of “Mr. Woodcock”), “Lars and the Real Girl” has a sweet innocence about it that’s surprising for a “movie about a sex doll,” but that feels perfectly natural in the film itself. Gradually we learn more about Lars’ life story, with his shyness explained in honest, believable terms. The film has many funny elements and moments — I’d call it a comedy with dramatic undertones — yet it’s not Lars we’re laughing at, at least not in a scornful way. We sympathize with him.
The key to the whole film, and what turns the potentially disastrous premise into something special, is Gosling’s sincerity. It’s not enough that Lars believes Bianca is a real person; the important thing is that Gosling believes that Lars believes it. He never winks at us to let on that he (Gosling) is only acting, or that he (Lars) knows Bianca is just a doll.
As a result, we find ourselves surprised in yet another way by this tender and gentle-natured story: Who would have thought a movie about a guy in love with a silicon doll could be so emotionally affecting and spiritually uplifting?
A- (1 hr., 46 min.; )