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Lars and the Real Girl may not be the most elaborate of fantasies, or the strangest, but it relies on such suspension of disbelief from the audience that it’s almost a miracle it succeeds. An able and warm-hearted cast, led by an astonishing Ryan Gosling, pulls off the feat of not only making you believe in a romance between a man and a life-size doll, but rooting for it. An uplifting fantasy with dark roots, Lars is the kind of movie that not only makes you love its unique and wonderful characters, but inspires faith in moviemaking in general.
Gosling stars as Lars, a quiet, eccentric young man in a remote Midwestern town who lives in his brother Gus’ (Paul Schneider) garage and avoids any social interaction whatsoever, including shy advances from his gangly co-worker Margot (Kelli Garner). For a while we’re not really sure what’s up with Lars—is he depressed? sociopathic?—but all the usual bets are off when Bianca arrives at his door. Bianca is a Real Girl, a life-size sex doll ordered off the Internet. Lars gets the idea from his horny co-worker, but when Bianca arrives it’s clear he’s not into her for her anatomically correct parts—Lars has found love.
He brings Bianca to dinner at Gus and Karin’s (Emily Mortimer), where he explains that she’s half-Brazilian, half-Dutch, is on a break from her work as a missionary, and needs to buy a new wheelchair. Karin, halfway through a pregnancy, goes along with Lars’ fantasy, pulling the reluctant Gus along with her. After the local doctor/psychiatrist Dagmar Bergman (Patricia Clarkson) tells them that the best thing to do is play along, Gus, Karin and Lars begin introducing Bianca to the community.
Nancy Oliver’s screenplay doesn’t go out of its way to pathologize Lars—he is clearly traumatized by his mother’s death during his birth, and feels physical pain when touched by another person, but there are no sweaty flashbacks or breakthrough therapy moments. Instead, Dagmar works with him by simply touching him, little by little, until, in a beautifully sentimental moment, Lars shakes Margot’s hand. From there we know it’s only a matter of time before Bianca has to leave, and Lars is ready for a real real girl.
With his performance here Ryan Gosling is beginning to raise the question of what he can’t do. He sells the hell out of his character, singing love songs to Bianca, watching her tearfully as she “dances” to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” and listening carefully to her words that only he can hear. He captivates us so fully that we understand how the town accepts his love for Bianca, using her as a storefront mannequin and, hilariously, electing her to the school board.
The supporting cast, Mortimer in particular, contribute greatly as well, capturing small-town residents who have no real choice other than to love and accept their neighbor. It might be pushing it to assume an entire town would embrace a sex doll as a real human, but not too much; Lars recognizes what few films do, that in the heart of America there remain places where neighborliness is a cardinal virtue.
Oliver wrote for the late, great HBO series Six Feet Under, and blesses Lars with that series’ same exquisite balance of sentimentality and dark humor. Director Craig Gillespie, whose only other credit is the Billy Bob Thornton-Seann William Scott disaster Mr. Woodcock, gets it right here. He, Oliver and their extraordinary cast know that you can get away with as many life lessons and uplifting moments as you want as long as you keep your head on your shoulders. Even if that head is made of lifelike silicone.