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Good for the Gosling: Ryan Gosling plays a Lutheran naf in love with a blow-up doll in 'Lars and the Real Girl'

Review: Lars And the Real Girl

Ryan Gosling gets carried away with his bumbling, sex doll-loving Norskie.

By Richard von Busack

What do you think of David Denby's comment in The New Yorker that acting on screen has never been better than now? Lars and the Real Girl, an indie film of great charm and not a little sappiness, is an example of the benefits and pitfalls of the kind of acting Denby cherishes. It stars one of the real hopes of the profession, Ryan Gosling, in the title role. Lars, a bottled-up bachelor, lives in the guesthouse behind his happily married brother Gus (Paul Schnieder) and his pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). One evening, he presents to them his new girlfriend, a sex doll called Bianca, whom he intends to marry. Gus, Karin and the rest of this far-north Lutheran Scandinavian Wisconsin town decide to treat Bianca as a human. This is one of those Frank Capra-cum-Northern Exposure small towns where everyone pulls in the same direction.

Bianca is presentable enough; her face looks a little like Sally Fields, though the parted mouth is more Angelina Jolie. And we're told, with all necessary discretion, that Bianca is anatomically correct. There always has to be the possibility of consummation in a farce. Soon Bianca, swathed in donated hand-knitted clothes, is pushed around in a wheelchair to church and to volunteer work. She even gets a part-time job—in a boutique window. Working from Six Feet Under veteran Nancy Oliver's script, director Craig Gillespie uses a common decency that never makes an extended SNL skit out of this. Lars has one of the few unironic uses of the phrase "What would Jesus do?" in the movies today. The winter light is right for a story of this kind of implicit sadness, especially when Bianca turns out to be too pure a spirit to survive.Making the inanimate animate is the actor's job. Even if we knew better, we wept for poor Wilson the Volleyball sailing off to sea in Cast Away. Even that IKEA commercial starring a table lamp as Stella Dallas gets you in the brisket. To bolster a case, Lars reads aloud to Bianca from Don Quixote: The windmills might be giants, ergo Bianca might be alive.

But if anything, Gosling shows how the power of acting can be used for evil instead of good. Gosling goes for it, with thrift shop clothes, galoshes and a David Crosby 'stache; one moment of getting to show off, on a hike to the woods with Bianca, singing a falsetto part to the Bert Kampfert tune "L-O-V-E." I think what keeps me from falling in love, instead of like, with Lars and the Real Girl is that sense of stunt performance-watching that keeps breaking out, as it often does in this best of all possible acting eras. The problem with this kind of power-acting is that it can be used for dramas that would make more of a visionary out of Lars. We've all seen the dreaded "sometimes when we touch, the feeling gets too much" movie, and Lars borders on it. This, especially, in a scene where the wise-woman doctor of the town, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), tests Lars' nerves; she can't even lay a hand on the bottled-up young man without him hurting. The big "acting is better than ever" performance that can, in lesser movies, end up as one long wince.

In one sense Denby is right, everything that's going wrong with the movies—the writing, the limitless crassness of franchise-production, the commonness of poor visuals—is superceded by the willingness of the actors to make things real.

Yet it's the old-fashioned character acting that really makes Lars more than a bizarre oddity. This movie would be a dreadful male fantasy starring a mute inert woman as "real girl" if it weren't underpinned by three strong, caring women. Mortimer's face warms this movie like an artificial sun, and this Scots actress has a peerless Midwestern accent: "Are ya hungry?" she asks brightly, and you know she's about to up-end a cornucopia. Clarkson brings every ounce of poise to this role, listening intently, bearing on her noble shoulders a huge French braid that makes her look like a Norsewoman. I'd also mention the toothy, sweetly geeky girl that never gives up on Lars. As Margo, Kelli Garner might get overlooked; a slim girl unconscious of the fact that she wears stripes and plaids simultaneously, and who does this marvelous wiggly dance of triumph when she bowls a strike. There's no substitute for the living.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (PG-13; 106 min.), directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver, photographed by Adam Kimmel and starring Ryan Gosling and Patricia Clarkson, opens Oct. 26 at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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