It may sound like a contradiction in terms to say that a movie about a guy in love with a sex doll is bursting with humanity, but that’s really the most apt way to describe the warm, wonderful “Lars and the Real Girl.”
Ryan Gosling, who earned an Oscar nomination this year as a drug-addicted junior high school teacher in “Half Nelson” and played a cocky prosecutor in “Fracture,” further reinforces that he can do pretty much anything. His Lars Lindstrom is an awkward, fiercely anti-social twentysomething who spends his days in a cubicle at a generic company and his nights in the converted garage behind his childhood home.
Friends and relatives are constantly trying to set him up with nice girls they know; hiding behind an array of hideously ’80s sweaters and ties and a neatly trimmed mustache, he smiles shyly, says no thanks and scurries off, alone.
Then one day, Lars orders a life-size, anatomically correct doll online. When she arrives, though, he truly believes she’s a real woman — the first “person” who gets him, who makes him feel comfortable. He introduces her as Bianca, says she’s a missionary on sabbatical and that she doesn’t speak much English (which explains why she’s so quiet, of course). With her slightly open mouth, curvy frame, fishnet stockings and flexible limbs, she clearly wasn’t intended for religious purposes, but Lars sees only the purity in her. Their relationship, if you can call it that, is quaintly chaste.
Now this all could have easily turned bawdy and crass. Worse yet, it could have been “Mannequin.” But director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by Nancy Oliver (“Six Feet Under”), shows a surprisingly delicate touch following his last film, the alleged comedy “Mr. Woodcock.” (This should, in theory, give Gillespie a clean slate.)
Everyone in this bleakly remote Midwestern setting, from Lars’ older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to the family doctor (Patricia Clarkson) and the town reverend, plays along out of respect for his obviously fragile mental state, and because they love him too much to burst his bubble. Plus, he’s happy — deeply, radiantly happy — for the first time in his lonely life. (The family’s back story is revealed slowly as the film progresses, and it explains everything.)
Of course there are the obligatory sight gags involving the ridiculousness of the doll at the dinner table. And the way Bianca becomes an unexpected sensation in this insular, snow-covered town (shot with spare cinematography by Adam Kimmel) is hilariously weird. But the humor remains deadpan and slyly absurd throughout — never condescending, never mean.
As Lars politely squires Bianca around, taking her to parties and to church and showing her his childhood haunts, nearly every person he runs into has the decency to refrain from making fun of him. (Leading the way is the family’s physician, whom Clarkson plays with disarming sweetness and insight.) Gus is sarcastic and reluctant at first — he’s the only one who says what we’re thinking — but eventually his derision turns to sympathy as he begins to wonder whether his brother has been afflicted by a serious delusion.
But Gosling had nothing but respect for this role — and his manufactured co-star. Through small gestures and bold choices, he’s created a character you begin feeling sorry for and end up rooting for and almost envying, simply because he’s found something (someone?) that makes him feel whole and alive. In our point-and-click world of instant gratification, that’s hard to come by.