After effortlessly shifting from the cornfed Romeo of The Notebook to the drug-addicted schoolteacher of Half Nelson to the arrogant young lawyer of Fracture, Ryan Gosling is now in a position to take on any role he wants, from Hamlet to action hero. The fact that he chose Lars and the Real Girl is a disturbing sign. Is Gosling trying to prove that his box-office draw hasn't affected his indie bona fides? Or is he, like the tactophobic hermit he plays in this heartfelt but muddled film, slightly nuts?
It's never quite clear what's wrong with Lars Lindstrom, who lives in a freestanding garage outside the house of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus' pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). He's high-functioning enough to hold down an office job, but so terrified of human contact that even Gus and Karin can barely corral him for a family breakfast. He runs from the flirtatious advances of his new co-worker, Margo (Kelli Garner), and wears a scarf made from the baby blanket his mother knitted him before dying in childbirth. So far, so sad—but this collection of character traits hardly adds up to the portrait of someone delusional enough to mistake a life-size silicone sex doll for a living, breathing, speaking human being. Which is exactly what Lars does when he brings home Bianca, whom he insists is a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary he met on the Internet. *
From the moment Lars set Bianca up at Gus and Karin's dinner table for an awkward getting-to-know-you meal, this movie lost me. Whatever line the script (by Six Feet Under's Nancy Oliver) was trying to walk between whimsical fantasy and psychologically realistic drama was obscured by the sheer creepiness of the premise. Is it just me, or is the inability to distinguish between living flesh and inert matter as horrifying as something out of Edgar Allan Poe?
Lars' relationship with a commercially produced sex toy can't help but carry associations with prostitution, mail-order bride services, even necrophilia. Yet all these dark links are glossed over by the movie's determinedly wholesome tone. The denizens of Lars' unnamed Midwestern hometown (the deep snow and ambient Swedishness suggest somewhere in Minnesota) agree, with Norman Rockwell-esque unanimity, to treat Bianca like a real person, carting her to church in a wheelchair, restyling her synthetic hair, even electing her to the school board. They're aided in this group madness by Dr. Dagmar Berman (Patricia Clarkson), Lars' psychologist, who gently assures Gus and Karin that the road to sanity is paved by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of benevolent enablers.
To its credit, the movie, directed by Craig Gillespie, never mocks Lars or turns his love for the doll into a dirty joke—in fact, he insists that she sleep in the guest room until they get to know each other better. But what about Bianca's anatomical correctness, the purpose for which she was engineered? If Lars truly falls for this rubber dummy, as the movie suggests, shouldn't their relationship become physical at some point? Or in order for us to believe in the goodness of Lars' soul, must he be totally without sexual desire? I couldn't give myself over to the movie's quaint celebration of mass psychosis without wondering about these questions.
Those with less debauched imaginations may be charmed by Lars and the Real Girl, which, if nothing else, admirably maintains its peculiar tone throughout. Gosling throws himself into the role with his customary intensity, but also maintains a light touch: When he tenderly inquires after his inanimate sweetheart's well-being, you fully believe that he can hear her answer. All the supporting actors are terrific, even if Clarkson feels miscast as the doctor—she just seems too smart to recommend such a fruity course of treatment.
Though it's too slight and well-meaning of a movie to get worked up about, Lars also sends an odd message about male/female relationships. If Lars' passion for a piece of store-bought plastic is, as the script implies, what teaches him to love a real person, how will he transfer those lessons to the realm of human intimacy? What will his time with Bianca have taught him about reciprocity, spontaneity, listening to other points of view? Won't the post-Bianca Lars be like a monkey raised in a lab environment, utterly unable to cope with the demands of a flesh-and-blood partner? Lars and the Real Girl suffers from an even stranger delusion than Lars does. The movie is convinced that its man-loves-mannequin premise is uplifting, when actually it's just kinda gross.