Lars Lindstrom has a new girlfriend: she's slim, sexy - a real doll. The only problem is... she's a real doll
! Bianca is the perfect partner - she doesn't argue, she hates to shop and she's built for sex - literally
! Now the family have to make his plastic partner feel right at home, or loony Lars might start cracking up! Together, Lars and his flexible friend embark on a crazy relationship that'll melt your heart! LOL!
Scratch that. Rewind.
The story of Lars And The Real Girl sounds like an idea the Farrelly brothers rejected for being too stupid. The basic premise - a lonely man falls in love with an anatomically correct sex doll and his concerned family play along - sounds like a dreadful sequel to Mannequin. Thankfully, it's nothing of the sort. Instead, it's an incredibly touching story that walks a fine line between tragedy and comedy; an offbeat, charming tale of unconventional romance without compare. You can keep your heavy-handed Farrelly brothers buffoonery: this is how you write a comedy about mental illness.
Ryan Gosling plays Lars, an introverted hermit who systematically avoids human contact as if his life depended on it. Lars is shacked up out in the garage of his family home, while his brother Gus (Schneider) and his pregnant wife Karen (Mortimer) live in the house. He wakes up, he goes to work, he awkwardly avoids small-talk, he goes home, he sleeps. His is a life of monotony and routine: any serious deviation, you feel, would cause his head to explode. Clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness (although it's never speculated, Lars appears to suffer from Asperger's Syndrome or some strain of autism), he nevertheless remains a popular figure in the town: the definition of a good old boy, never did no harm.
It comes as a shock when the reclusive Lars knocks on his brother's front door to announce he has a girlfriend he met over the internet. It's an even bigger shock when he introduces Bianca, a life-size plastic sex doll, as his new love. It's at this defining moment where Lars And The Real Girl really earns its stars, finding just the right tone between gentle comedy and concerned drama. The odd nervous titter aside, the situation isn't played for laughs at all; there isn't a single cheap shot in the entire running time and Lars' mental state is never exploited. Despite Bianca's faintly sinister appearance and her full working parts, the topic of sex rarely comes up; the only physical contact shared between the two is a heart-breakingly tender last reel kiss that feels so, so right. By the finale, Bianca is much more than a mere fucktoy: she's a fully fleshed-out character that earns every emotion felt.
Gosling is nothing short of phenomenal here, falling in on himself and disappearing into the role completely. Presenting Lars as a bundle of tangled nerves and coiled frustration at the start of the movie and slowly unravelling as the story unfolds, his is a performance right up there with Dustin Hoffman's in Rain Man - he's that good. This simply cannot be the same Ryan Gosling we saw in Fracture as a cocky, slick, showboating city lawyer: the only explanation is that we are seeing his identical twin at work. With a range like this, it won't be long before he turns last year's Oscar nomination into a win.
Lars And The Real Girl doesn't contain a single scene that follows convention. There are no in-bred local hicks who toss beer cans at Lars' head for sleeping with a sex toy. There are no frustrated family members who lose their rag and call him weird. Such is their love for Lars, the townsfolk here embrace Bianca as one of their own, 'hiring' her as a shop mannequin and even electing her to the school board. Paul Schneider is excellent as Lars' concerned brother, but he's outshone by his Emily Mortimer as his pregnant wife, who exudes warmth and happiness whenever she's on screen (not nearly enough). The real find here is Kelli Garner as Bianca's human love rival, Margo: shy and vulnerable with just the right measure of cuteness, she's exquisitely played, a naive young girl any man would fall for.
There are obvious pitfalls for a comedy that dares cover such dangerous ground: if you're going to tackle the prickly subject of mental illness, you'd better tread carefully. Director Craig Gillespie does just that, making sure we're always laughing with Lars and not at him. Offbeat, intelligent and absolutely lovable from top to bottom, Lars And The Real Girl is a film without compare, about as far removed from conventional comedy as it's possible to be. Don't expect a laugh a minute; do expect a film with a bigger heart than any other indie released this year.