'Lars And The Real Girl': Absurdia, By Kurt Loder

What is Ryan Gosling doing in this movie?

Apparently, there are people who think this is the feel-good movie of the year. I know I felt really good when the bloody thing ended.

Movies with deluded protagonists usually try to persuade us that the hero's delusion is somehow a good thing — an improvement on real life, even. In the 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street," for instance, Edmund Gwenn may not really be Santa Claus, but his conviction that he is stirs a heartwarming Christmas glow in those around him. And in the 1950 "Harvey," James Stewart's belief in a magical friend — a man-size rabbit — serves a similarly sweet purpose.

The protagonist of "Lars and the Real Girl," on the other hand, has fallen in love with a mail-order sex doll. I suppose this premise could be made to work as a movie. The painter Oskar Kokoschka, after all, once took up with a custom-made mannequin modeled on the measurements of a woman who'd dumped him. I might pay to see that movie. But Kokoschka was a fun, kooky artist. The title character in this film, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling), is a near-lifeless simpleton with a face of moonlike inexpressiveness (apart from a torpid smile that suggests he's just eaten a really excellent oatmeal cookie).

At first I thought Lars was autistic; later, though, we're told he was emotionally stunted by growing up with a very sad dad. In any case, he's 27 years old and lives in a small, snowy Midwestern town, in a converted garage behind a house inhabited by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus' wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). A stranger to social skills, he nevertheless manages to hold down a job in a non-descript office where he shares a cubicle with a porn-hound named Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) and fends off the advances of a girl named Margo (Kelli Garner). (Right here the movie waves goodbye to the real world, a place in which women who look like Kelli Garner are well-known to set their sights somewhat higher than "dimwit" on the scale of male attraction.)

When Kurt turns Lars on to Realgirl.com — an actual Website whose sex dolls come with pre-flattened backs — Lars puts in an order. When the doll arrives, he names it (well, her, I guess) Bianca, and starts introducing the thing around as his girlfriend. Gus and Karin, understandably alarmed, take him to a local psychologist (Patricia Clarkson). And her professional opinion? Ply him with meds? Drive him straight to the bin? No. She suggests that Gus and Karin and everyone else adjust their boringly normal reality to accommodate Lars' delusion. And so before you know it (and long before you could ever believe it), Lars and his rubbery inamorata are being fondly fussed over by local biddies, toasted at parties, embraced by broadminded churchgoers — in short, they're taking the town by storm. Bianca gets a job in a clothing store (very droll). She volunteers at the hospital. She gets elected to the school board. Can you stand it?

Quite possibly not. Clarkson, Schneider and Mortimer, three fine actors, are to be saluted for their commitment to indie films, but they're wasted in this one. And Gosling, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in last year's "Half Nelson," can do nothing with the po-faced schlub he attempts to play here. Presumably, those who resonate to a film like this feel it points the way to a better world, one in which rolling around in such sentimental goo can wash away our soul-shriveling cynicism. Don't they worry about their brains going down the drain, too?

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