Imitation of life

Grief, love, and plastic mingle in Lars and the Real Girl

Lonely, socially awkward dude becomes obsessed with an eerily lifelike female doll. Uh, I've seen that movie before, when it was a horror flick called Love Object. But if you can imagine the same plot transferred into a bittersweet romance and with the kink factor dialed way down, you'll have a grip on Lars and the Real Girl, a movie so softhearted it implies the silicone-worshiping misfit in question (Ryan Gosling) doesn't even have sex with his sex doll. They do smooch on occasion, though.

From Craig Gillespie — the director of Mr. Woodcock, a far less gentle 2007 affair — and scripter Nancy Oliver (a frequent Six Feet Under writer), Lars and the Real Girl couches its outrageous concept in classic Amer-indie trappings, including a naturalistic setting that incorporates small-town vistas, snowy cinematography, and a Sundance Channel–ready cast. Besides genre darling Gosling, there's Patricia Clarkson as Dagmar, a sympathetic doctor; Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer as Lars's concerned brother, Gus, and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin; and Kelli Garner as Margo, Lars's endearingly dorky coworker. Margo's sweet on Lars, but he's so terrified of human interaction that he'd rather form a relationship with Bianca, the Angelina Jolie–esque plastic vixen that arrives via UPS one chilly morning.

Naturally, Gus and Karin are horrified — Gus is perhaps more mortified — when they meet Lars's much-exalted new girlfriend (he met her on the Internet, you see). Having an anatomically correct doll as a constant companion is spooky enough, but Lars believes she's real and conducts one-sided conversations with her and tenderly looks after her well-being. Before long, Bianca trades in her fishnets and hooker makeup for sweatpants and bangs, settles into her very own wheelchair, and accompanies Lars everywhere he goes.

Surprisingly, the community comes to accept Lars's new friend — they all love Lars, a lifelong resident. His mother died in childbirth, and older bro Gus has only recently reentered his life, having moved away to sow oats while leaving Lars in the care of their cold, distant, now-deceased father. This is a guy who feels pain when he's touched — no wonder his dream girl is even less alive than Kim Cattrall in Mannequin (or, to cite my favorite movie with an inanimate humanoid as its main character, Terry Kiser in Weekend at Bernie's). Thanks to the fact that everyone in town plays along with Lars's Bianca-is-real delusion, the doll does begin to take on a life of her own. She volunteers! She gets a job! She's elected to the school board! Much to Lars's annoyance, she's too busy to spend every waking moment with her boyfriend — even though she is technically not awake.

Lars and the Real Girl has its moments of broad comedy, but its delicate tone demands that it underplay any sight-gag potential. After Half Nelson (and, perhaps no less so, The Notebook) cinephiles have come to expect great things from Gosling's performances; he's got a way of elevating even uninspiring material to a more meaningful plane, in the manner of Edward Norton or Sean Penn. As Lars he's pudgy, slovenly (except for his perfectly slicked-back hair), and mustachioed, with a nervous blink and a hunched, shy demeanor. He interprets Lars's overflowing reserves of fear and grief with subtle grace. At first a salve for loneliness, Bianca becomes both a coping strategy and a way for Lars to externalize his repressed anguish. Any actor able to transfer such complicated emotions onto a plastic costar is clearly as real as they come. *


Opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters

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