Plastic sheen, vibrant heart

The whimsical 'Lars and the Real Girl' presents a picture of life as it ought to be, rather than the way it is.

Sullenly introverted Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) has a dull office job in a small Midwestern town. He resists bantering with his co-workers and shrinks from the flirtations of Margo (Kelli Garner), the appealingly daffy new hire. He attends church regularly and lives in the garage apartment behind the childhood home occupied by his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), who worries that Lars is friendless.

One evening he makes an announcement that he has been joined by a companion, Bianca, a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary, wheelchair bound, raised by nuns, whom he met on the Web. Gus and Karin's elation is short-lived: Bianca is a custom-ordered, anatomically correct, silicone doll.

Before you recoil in horror at the apparent grossness of yet another Hollywood high concept, you need to know that "Lars and the Real Girl" is anything but an exploitation film. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Nancy Oliver want to shock audiences, but not in the ways you might expect. Their movie is about loneliness and the ways in which it is mitigated by human kindness. If Frank Capra were starting out today, he might have made a film like this one.

Lars is deeply delusional, of course, but the community cares about him. He's a "good boy," pronounces the universally accepting Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty), and very soon the villagers take up the cause. In Lars's presence they all pretend Bianca is a real woman and, in a sense, because she is real to Lars, she becomes real to them, too. Only Gus is humiliated and disturbed by this turn in his brother's sanity, but with Karin's forbearance, he accepts the situation in the hopes that, with the help of the local psychologist (Patricia Clarkson), things will work out.

He has good cause to hope since Lars, who doesn't believe in premarital relations, has installed Bianca in a spare bedroom in his brother's home. With her plastic sheen, pouty lips, and raven hair, Bianca is initially an unsettling presence in the household. Lars's love humanizes her.

When I mentioned Capra earlier, the compliment was double-edged. In attempting uplift, Capra often front-loaded his morality plays with a heavy dose of whimsy. Gillespie and Oliver do a similar thing here. It's not just that they nix any sexual involvement between Bianca and her beloved. They also present a community in which not even one person attempts to make a public spectacle of Lars. The movie is an idyllic view of life as it ought to be, rather than the way it is. Grade: A–

Rated PG-13 for some sex-related content.

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