Friday, October 26, 2007

His love is real, but she's not

Summary: "Lars and the Real Girl" is a cockeyed coming-of-age fable involving a young man's delusions about a sex doll. The movie has its moments, but a bit of thought can turn its sweetness sour.

Ryan Gosling, an actor of undeniable skill, tones down his act to play Lars, a small-town misfit who treats a life-sized sex doll as if it were real. The movie's clever twist: Lars regards "Bianca" as a normal young woman with whom he has developed a relationship, something like a long-cherished pen pal whom he's finally met. Because Lars imagines that Bianca is chaste and religious, he has her "sleep" in a spare bedroom in his brother's house. The reclusive Lars lives in the converted garage behind the house he and his brother inherited from their dad.

Lars' brother (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) constantly attempt to draw the quiet recluse out of his shell, but he resists, probably because he's a quirky loner in a movie about a quirky loner. Lars doesn't begin acting "normal" until he acquires the doll, which arrives in a coffin-sized box that's deposited on his doorstep.

Perhaps to provide some psychological background, Nancy Oliver's screenplay tells us that Lars' mom died in childbirth. "Abandonment" issues have backed Lars into a corner; he barely can tolerate being touched. I'm no shrink, and I don't play one on TV, but none of that seemed sufficient to explain why Lars falls for his plastic princess.

Do the townsfolk deride Lars or suggest that he needs big-time help? Not really. Even a local physician (Patricia Clarkson) suggests that Lars' brother and sister-in-law (along with the rest of the town) indulge the young man's fantasy and treat Bianca as if she were real. The town gives Lars and his delusions a great big hug.

Credibility issues aside, there are some laughs here with director Craig Gillespie quietly dropping a few sight gags into the proceedings: Bianca accompanying Lars to church is one of the better examples.

Irrevocably "indie" in its tone, "Lars and the Real Girl" has what every good indie film needs: an oddball hook. The sex doll isn't used for sex, but becomes a vivid and unifying figure in the life of the entire town. Even one of Lars' co-workers and potential love interests (Keli Garner) refuses to burst Lars' bubble.

Although Gosling ("Half Nelson") sometimes allows a real reaction to peek through Lars' puffy, inexpressive face, the gifted actor has had better days and better roles. Say this: Gosling ("Half Nelson") totally commits himself to Lars' muted, non-personality, which I suppose qualifies as an achievement.

Many will find "Lars and the Real Girl" to be a sweet and touching lesson in acceptance and love. Because its sweetness isn't cloying, the movie proves tolerable, and its emotional life isn't deep enough to be troubling. But the longer it went on, the more difficulty I had buying into "Lars and The Real Girl." Questions began to nag. Would a whole town react this way to one of its more peculiar residents? Is encouraging delusion really an act of kindness? And could this situation exist anywhere but in an indepedent-minded movie that's trying to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack?

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