When it comes to the movies, there's a fine line between trite, calculated sentimentality and heartfelt human drama. It's a razor's edge that filmmakers have to walk—audiences can fall on either side of it depending on what kind of a day they're having and they're tolerance for sap.
Like Little Miss Sunshine, Lars and the Real Girl straddles that line, struggling to stay authentic and relevant while at times veering toward easy laughs. It's like the difference between true, passionate love and, say, a sex doll—which is certainly an apt analogy since the lead character's main love interest in Lars is, in fact, a sex doll. All told, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Nancy Oliver do their subject proud, and the film is anchored by another impressive performance by Ryan Gosling, who's adept at picking the right projects and delivering the broken-boy goods.
Gosling is Lars Lindstrom, a shy, awkward man who lives in an awkward, snow-ridden town in one of the Northern states (think Minnesota). He wears an awkward mustache and dresses in awkward sweaters, and lives in the garage of his family's home, which is occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus' pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer), who's desperate to draw poor Lars out of his self-imposed shell. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and everyone else's business. People look out for one another—it's a family-values sort of town in a blue-state sort of way. This is probably why everyone helps out when Lars unexpectedly begins a new relationship with Bianca, a gorgeous Brazilian girl he meets on the Internet. She's pretty and stacked and, in many ways, way out of Lars' league.
When Bianca arrives for a visit, not everyone is immediately as smitten with her as Lars is. Maybe that's because Bianca doesn't talk much (Portuguese is her native tongue), or maybe it's because her tongue, and the rest of her, is made of “soft, slippery, and very elastic” silicone—according to the website of the company that created her). Yes, Bianca is a “RealDoll,” manufactured (for real) in San Marcos. To Lars, she's a shy, wheelchair-bound nursing student to whom he can talk and love, and who will love him for himself.
Lars' brother and sister-in-law don't know what to make of it, especially when Lars insists that Bianca sleep in his mother's old room—since both he and Bianca are religious, it isn't proper for the two of them to stay together in the garage. Margo (Kelli Garner), his mousy co-worker, is initially crushed by her new rival. Only Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) sees the situation for what it is—a necessary delusion for Lars to help him work out some unspoken, deep-seated emotional trauma. Her advice: Run with it. Support Lars in his time of need. Pretend that Bianca is a real girl, rather than a RealDoll. Those instructions go for everyone in town.
Here's where Lars and the Real Girl gets close to that aforementioned line, because, it turns out, no one has a hard time acting as though Bianca is the real deal. The entire effect is at times sweet, other times saccharine, but when the moments feel sincere, they're terribly nice. It isn't long before Bianca's popularity eclipses Lars'. She has friends all over town, even a part-time job (to explain would be to spoil) and a full social calendar.
Your own reaction to the film will depend entirely on whether or not you're willing to suspend your disbelief as much as the characters in the film do, because the fine line of Lars is mostly between comedy and tragedy. Yes, the big joke is that Bianca is a sex doll, but she could be any object that Lars casts as his delusion. And if you can get past the fact that she has breasts that (again, according to the website) “look, feel and bounce like real breasts,” it's easy to see the movie for the tragedy that it really is. What makes the film uplifting is that once they've moved on from the awkward reality of Lars' situation, his friends and family are actually happy for him, because even though Bianca is what she is, Lars is finally happy.
Gosling is terrific as Lars, and it wouldn't be shocking if he were nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for a second time. The guy has chops and range (if you haven't seen Half Nelson, which earned him a nod last year, rent it and you'll see), and he manages to bottle up his psychic suffering while also wearing it on his sleeve. Another actor might have played it for laughs—Gosling doesn't. But it all comes down to whether or not you buy into the reality. If you do, you'll find Lars and the Real Girl sweet and moving. If not, it may feel as phony as Bianca's—well, you get the idea.