"Lars and the Real Girl"

Dennis Harvey October 16, 2007

Hollywood is no meritocracy, but sometimes it’s obvious from the beginning that an actor is going to be a star — no matter how many bad or flop movies it’ll takes to get there.

It took the stupid “Pirates” series to make Johnny Depp “commercial,” as becoming the 90th Batman did Christian Bale. But who ever doubted they were destined for big things, from their earliest juvenile roles?

Likewise Ryan Gosling — though I can’t say I saw him on “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which also birthed the likes of Justin, Xtina, Britney, J.C. Chasez and the comparatively “serious” Keri Russell. Or as “Young Hercules” (the short-lived companion to hit syndicated series “Xena” and “Hercules”). But likely Gosling himself would prefer his career officially started at the point where I first saw him, as the neo-Nazi-skinhead Jewish teen in “The Believer” (2001).

Since then, Gosling — just 27 years old now — has been strikingly versatile in a number of big-screen projects, from Heathcliff-like romantic brooding in “The Notebook” to holding his own opposite Anthony Hopkins in “Fracture.” But nothing demonstrated his talent as brilliantly as last year’s “Half Nelson,” in which he played a crack-addicted but gifted inner-city junior high teacher developing a mutually salvational bond with a black female student. This fairly improbable setup couldn’t possibly have worked without Gosling’s pitiless performance — one so extraordinary that even Oscar had to acknowledge it (and the barely-seen movie that contained it) with a Best Actor nomination.

He’s never repeated himself, and it’s unclear as yet whether there’s any stretch he can’t pull off. Offering latest proof is “Lars and the Real Girl,” a wisp of a movie that shouldn’t be able to sustain its gimmicky concept, yet miraculously does. Thanks are due not just to Gosling but to his perfectly cast fellow actors, ideally measured direction by Craig Gillespie (a veteran TV commercial helmer you’d never guess directed the dreadful, much-delayed Billy Bob Thornton misfire “Mr. Woodcock” just before this), and “Six Feet Under” scenarist Nancy Oliver. They all create something very special here, a sweetly absurdist comedy that turns into an idyllic parable about individual growth and community togetherness.

Lars (Gosling) is a dork amongst dorks, living in a converted garage behind his birth home now inhabited by brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and the latter’s pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Everybody keeps trying to fix Lars up, but he doesn’t seem to want a girlfriend — in fact, he seems to be undergoing a gradual withdrawal from nearly all human contact. Does he just want to be left alone, or is something more profound going on?

Gus and Karin find out when, to their surprise, Lars announces he has a guest he’d like them to meet and, indeed, put up in their spare room. That’s nothing compared to the surprise they get upon actually meeting “Bianca” — a purportedly wheelchair-bound former missionary who also happens to be a life-sized “anatomically correct” doll Lars ordered over the Internet.

He’s forgotten that last part, however. Not only does he expect everyone to participate in his delusion, he actually starts getting out a lot more — taking Bianca to church, to parties, all around his small town deep in wintry Fargoland. On the advice of local physician-cum-shrink Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), everyone plays along with this bizarre charade, letting Lars work through whatever mental-health glitch Bianca represents.

As story premises go, this one sounds suspended somewhere between the daft and the dumb, its only respectable options being black comedy or perverse psychological thrillerdom. (The prior best serious movie about man and mannequin, 1988’s little-known “Pin,” was a superbly subtle horror movie.)

But “Lars” manages to turn a ridiculous conceit into something studiously off-center, whimsical yet credible, poignant yet frequently funny, slow-paced but wholly ingratiating. Oliver’s nuanced screenplay would have been useless without the deadpan delicacy Gillespie and cast bring to it. Clarkson is great as usual; I don’t know who Paul Schneider is, but he nearly steals a movie wonderfully acted all around.

Then there’s Ryan Gosling, who plays a classic borderline-brain impaired character — one that might well have been portrayed by the likes of Jon Heder, David Arquette or “Dumb & Dumber”-esque Jim Carrey — without a false or predictable note. His bad haircut, dweeb wardrobe, and hapless ’70s mustache mark Lars as a hilarious geek caricature. But the performance is so deft that you’ll find yourself earnestly pulling for Lars’ return to the realm of the living — the living love object, that is.