If the title character of Lars and the Real Girl were in fact real, he’d be locked up in a mental institution where he belonged. He’d be getting professional psychiatric help to deal with his extreme fear of human contact, his abandonment issues and his long-term delusion that a lifelike sex doll he names Bianca is actually his half-Brazilian, half-Dutch wheelchair-bound girlfriend.
But he’s not real; he’s a character in a movie, so instead Lars (Ryan Gosling) is encouraged in his delusion by his entire hometown, led by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), in whose garage Lars conducts his heretofore solitary existence. Confronted with Lars’ insistence that Bianca is a real person who requires meals, clothing and a place to sleep, Gus and Karin consult local family practitioner/psychologist/dispenser of folksy wisdom Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who by all rights should advise them to take the addled young man to the finest mental-health facility in their unnamed but very Minnesota-like state.
Instead, she encourages them to encourage Lars, and eventually everyone in his life is doting on Bianca, carting her around to social functions and propping a hymnal up in her hands when she’s at church. It’s all part of a process, of course, to help Lars deal with his issues and become a better person, as is obvious from the moment Bianca first appears. Although various moments are played for mild laughs, director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver seem to be shooting for a more earnest, emotional tone, treating Lars with as much sympathy and care as his neighbors do.
The problem is that Lars is clearly insane, and the longer the movie goes on the harder it is to believe that the indulgent treatment is really best for him, or that everyone would continue to go along with it. When Gus tries early on to confront Lars with the truth, he seems like the only person doing the right thing, but in time he comes around to accepting Bianca, and even thanks Dr. Dagmar for insisting that he do so.
By dialing down the comedy and playing up the pathos, Gillespie puts the movie in a sort of empty middle space, with situations that are patently absurd but meant to be somehow touching and sweet. He seems to be fleeing from his last movie, the lowbrow comedy Mr. Woodcock, but Lars probably could have used a broader tone and Seann William Scott in the lead role. Gosling often garners praise as one of the best young actors working today, but his Method madness here consists mostly of blinking a lot, and Lars comes off as far more intense and potentially unhinged than he ought to.
As the movie lumbers to its inevitable conclusion, telegraphed by the presence of Lars’ sweet and very single co-worker (Kelli Garner), the premise loses all credibility, and Gosling’s performance gets even twitchier. While occasional moments are as sweet as they’re meant to be, most of the movie is as fake and awkward as Bianca herself.
Lars and the Real Girl
Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson
Directed by Craig Gillespie