‘Lars’: sex toys are people, too

“Lars and the Real Girl” uses fantasy to persuade viewers to reassess reality — even if the lead is a sex doll. Director Craig Gillespie feeds the Indie viewer with quirky scenarios that perfectly compliment comedy and tragedy, making “Lars” worth the gimmick.

Lars (Ryan Gosling), a peculiar, socially stunted loner, can barely speak to the people he works with and bristles if accidentally touched. When his cubicle mate at work shows him a Web site to buy sex toys, Lars secretly orders a life-size (anatomically correct) doll. He announces to his brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) that he has a date. Although she can’t walk (she’s “handicapped”) or speak (she’s “foreign”), Bianca will join them for dinner as Gus and Karin watch incredulously.

Gus and Karin desperately want to cure Lars’ delusion and resolve to take him to the local psychologist/doctor (Patricia Clarkson). Sweet and understanding, Dr. Dagmar explains this “delusion” will only go away when Lars wants it to, and prescribes a full-fledged acceptance of Bianca into their lives. Reluctantly, Gus and Karin accept their mission to miraculously inspire their Midwestern community to indulge in Lars’ insanity.

Sprinkled with moments of wit and situational comedy, the first half of “Lars” whets an appetite for offbeat comedy. Bianca’s debut as a fishnet wearing, Madonna-esque doll who is also infertile, God-worshipping and physically disabled warrants Gus and Karin’s dead-pan reactions. Evoking the utter idiosyncrasy of the circumstance, the movie employs doll bubble-baths, mandated doctors visits and a busy schedule of volunteer work. Bianca even attends sermons, revealing that priests tolerate devout dolls.

But sometimes the gimmick goes too far. After forty minutes of doll jokes (and repeated haircuts), it gets a little old.

On the brink of dismissing the film as a slow-paced, elongated “Saturday Night Live” skit about a man infatuated with a sex toy, the audience is jarred by Bianca’s make-believe illness. An abrupt shift in tone that may have been baffling seems almost natural — the community comes together to support Bianca. “Lars” then embarks on an emotional, if bizarre, excursion.

Not a light-hearted comedy, the film takes a tragic look at confronting inner turmoil. Straying from its narrative ploy of comic, ludicrous sex-doll parades, “Lars” becomes a story of true love and its sympathetic observers. Just as toleration sweeps the town, it will sweep the audience as well.

The harsh, chill winter of desolate Middle America becomes a symbol for Lars’ pyschological struggle — sterile, frozen and stuck in the past. Gillespie captures pendulum mood swings, creating a progression from happy to sad to a melange of the two.

Lars’ inability to endure human touch — an obvious metaphor — culminates in quarrels with Bianca and feelings of abandonment. In his first heartfelt conversation with his brother, Lars asks Gus about what it means to be a man. “Is it sex?” he wonders. No, Gus says, it is about “doing the right thing.” We movingly witness a life-size version of a child struggling to let his doll go — albeit a few decades too late.

Maybe, the film suggests, we are all children who need toys to understand the grown-up world. Margo, Lars’ obsequious coworker, cries over her injured teddy bear, but luckily Lars knows CPR. His cubicle neighbor (derivative of “The Office”) hoards a collection of action figures, but sadly these obsessions are not all fun and games.

“Lars” recoils from full-blown tragedy, drawing from the film’s earlier comedic knacks. But the lesson of acceptance is still there. In the classic quirky, Indie spirit, Gillepsie trades Olive, the sexy-dancing beauty pageant star of “Little Miss Sunshine,” for Bianca, a “slutty hunk of silicone.” It might sound creepy — caring for, you know, a doll — but Bianca lures you in, just as she captivates Lars.

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