“Lars and the Real Girl” is the darndest thing. Starring Ryan Gosling as the romantically challenged Lars, this is a film whose daring and delicate blend of apparent irreconcilables will sweep you off your feet if you’re not careful.
For what screenwriter Nancy Oliver, director Craig Gillespie and a top cast have done is construct a Frank Capra-style fable, a throwback tribute to the joys of friendship and community, around a sex toy. Taking one of the most salacious items modern culture can provide as their centerpiece, they’ve created the sweetest, most innocent, most completely enjoyable film around.
What makes this implausible feat of sustained imagination possible is how exactly calibrated “Lars’ ” emotional effects are. The creators of this film were fiercely determined not to go so much as a millimeter over the line into sentiment, tawdriness or mockery. It’s the rare film that is the best possible version of itself, but “Lars” fits that bill.
Credit goes first to Oliver, a “Six Feet Under” writer doing her initial feature script, who, having noticed that a lot of contemporary movies were “dark, edgy, sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited,” determined to do something different without sacrificing intelligence, wit or unexpectedness.
Filmmaker Gillespie, a top commercial creator who is the director of record on the completely dissimilar “Mr. Woodcock,” understood this script in a way no one but the original writer usually does. His decision to shoot in the Canadian winter, substituting for the frigid upper Midwest of the script, helps give the film its deadpan, almost Scandinavian humor.
Gillespie has also ensured that the “Lars” performers are all on the same wavelength. First among equals is Gosling, who plays the sweet, guileless and very much removed Lars with unwavering, unblinking sincerity.
The always involving Emily Mortimer conveys generosity and intelligent sprightliness as Lars’ sister-in-law Karin, Paul Schneider is very much the guy’s guy as Lars’ brother Gus, and Kelli Garner wins us over as Margo, Lars’ awkward but sincere coworker who is more willing than most to get to know the young man.
That takes some doing, because what Lars does best is what he’s doing as the film begins, which is hiding from the other people in his small town. In this case, he’s hiding from the pregnant Karin, who lives with Gus in the family house while Lars by choice makes do with an apartment in the garage.
Karin simply wants him to come over for the occasional meal, but though Lars has the habits and disposition of a grown-up choir boy he is pathologically shy, terrified enough at even the thought of human contact to literally run when he sees it coming.
That doesn’t stop Margo at work from trying to chat him up and other folks from trying to set him up. That pressure, combined with nervousness about Karin’s pregnancy and a coworker who watches too much pornography, leads to the arrival at Lars’ home of an enormous crate.
That evening, Lars knocks at Karin and Gus’ door. “I have a visitor,” he says, proud as can be. But when he produces his friend, she turns out to be not what anyone expected. “This is Bianca,” he says, introducing a fully dressed, anatomically correct, life-size silicone doll. “She’s not from here.”
As Karin and Gus look on astonished, Lars explains that Bianca is a Brazilian/Danish missionary he met online who has to get around in a wheelchair and, because she is as religious as Lars, will have to sleep in the big house.
For Lars, who treats Bianca like an actual person and holds conversations only he can hear, is not thinking of sex. Bianca, it turns out, is the only kind of companion he can tolerate. As Dr. Dagmar, a convenient physician/psychologist (a terrific Patricia Clarkson) says, “Bianca’s in town for a reason,” and everyone who cares about Lars is going to have to deal with that.
It is the charming conceit of “Lars and the Real Girl” that the group includes not just Karin, Gus and Dr. Dagmar but almost everyone in this mythical hamlet, some of whom turn out to have inanimate objects of their own that they treasure. Because people genuinely like Lars, because they want the best for him, they take Bianca as seriously as he does, which leads to any number of strangely comic and surprisingly poignant situations.
And the truth is, Bianca is good for both Lars and the town. She contributes to changes in his personality, giving him the courage to be the best person he can be. And she makes the townspeople around her reconsider their own lives and begin to value what matters over what does not.
Though it was produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, “Lars and the Real Girl” is being distributed by MGM, complete with the studio’s venerable roaring lion logo. It makes one wonder what Louis B. Mayer of MGM’s wholesome golden era would think of his company being associated with a film bizarre enough to employ a “Bianca wrangler.” If the idea itself didn’t give him a heart attack, he would probably like it just fine. It’s that kind of a film.
“Lars and the Real Girl.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sex-related content. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. In limited release.