If your brother showed up to your house with a sex doll he believed to be his real life girlfriend, you could have one of two reactions: Either you could go along with his delusion and try and help, or you could lop the head off the damn thing and try and help that way.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is a sitcom-y but sweet story about a man with a social phobia stuck in a delusion. It’s approach for self-help is the former, and it becomes obvious how drastically different a film this could’ve been if it adhered to the latter. But by straining to avoid cynicism and discrimination at all costs, “Lars and the Real Girl” overcomes what would otherwise be cheap, sitcom laughs.
Ryan Gosling shows magnificent range as Lars, the awkward but undeniably endearing disabled person who brings home a plastic girlfriend. He has a crippling fear of social situations and experiences a burning pain at the touch. But at almost every moment Gosling is just naturally beaming.
As we see him sitting with this slutty doll, we laugh with him, not at him. Everyone in town cares so much for him that much of Craig Gillespie’s film is about his family and friends more than it is about Lars.
We feel especially close to Karin and Gus (Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider), Lars’s older brother and sister-in-law. Karin desperately tries to reach out to him to even come to dinner, and we sense she might also have reservations of how good a mother she will be for her unborn baby if she can’t care for Lars.
Their decision for how to deal with Lars comes after consulting a family physician (Patricia Clarkson). She advises them to go along with the delusion until it passes. They dress Lars’s girlfriend Bianca, give her makeovers and baths, involve her in community outreach jobs and in church services and treat her as one of the family.
All of this is goofy and funny, and the concept seems too good to be true. We almost wonder if we should be laughing at this at all, but is creating this situation really any different than composing an elaborate sci-fi allegory?
I was more interested in how supportive the entire town is. Gus is the most apprehensive, and he flimsily tries to snap Lars out of it early on in his delusion, but even he gets the guys at work cracking jokes as though Bianca were just another girl to ogle.
What if this movie took place in a big city rather than a small town? What if someone or something violently snapped Lars out of his illusion instead of allowing him the natural emotions of a relationship? What if he was taken to a mental institution?
All of these things could make for a very depressing and potentially exploitative movie, of which “Lars and the Real Girl” never is. It’s wonderfully infectious despite being a bit too cute. Lars’s flesh and blood soul mate is the all too adorable Margo (Kelli Garner), but Lars does a gesture so sweet with one of her teddy bears that it’s impossible to fault the movie on having too much of a good thing.
For a movie to explore disabilities and work as a romance is one thing. For it to also be as warm, funny and loveable as “Lars and the Real Girl” is something all together more wonderful.
3 ½ stars