Don't let the fact this is about a slutty lump of inanimate silicone turn you off: Lars and the Real Girl is the sex doll movie for people who don't like sex doll movies. Never once in director Craig Gillespie's new film are we made privy to the painstaking craftsmanship that went into the construction of our "real girl" Bianca's delicate labial folds, nor do we learn exactly how many of her cylindrically shaped major orifices are available for defiling. And in case you're wondering whether the curtains match the drapes, as it were, the only answer you'll get is the aghast reaction shot of the prim woman who happens to score an accidental glance under Bianca's fishnet skirt.
There are those who will consider this reason enough to storm out of the theater and demand their money back. They're best advised to run back home and rewatch BBC America's clinically creepy documentary Love Me, Love My Doll. The rest of us, however, are in store not for a disquieting study in onanistic perversion but rather a slight, generous fable, the kind you can take your favorite aunt to on a Sunday afternoon, if not exactly your grandparents. A little good will toward Lars goes a long way: It's low on conflict, vague in its psychology and requires a belief that the rural Midwest is populated with a bevy of humble, good-natured people more than willing to rally to the cause of their lonely village idiot. Luckily, writer Nancy Oliver has filled her snowy, sleepy, too-good-to-be-true burg with a handful of characters who never seem anything less than lived-in, and to play them, Gillespie has assembled a to-die-for cast of indie luminaries, chief among them Hollywood's most uncompromising golden boy, Ryan Gosling.
The movie lives or dies on Gosling's performance as Lars: Combing his hair with what looks like spit, growing a caterpillar mustache that even the trendiest Brooklyn hipster would find unironically uncool, and speaking in a semiaudible mutter that suggests an incurable sinus infection, he's one shade away from auditioning for a Napoleon Dynamite sequel. But Gosling has a way of making even his showiest work seem utterly natural. All of his little bits of business here are dead-on: His restricted, blunt physicality, or the way he struggles to chirp "okie dokie" to his co-workers. Gillespie and Oliver wring big laughs out of the townspeople's unblinking acceptance of Bianca, but — save for one poorly judged kiss — Gosling resists the impulse to make this man-child all cute and doughy, Benny & Joon-style.
Lars' struggle to overcome his "delusion" is so outré, so mannered, that the movie needs a good straight man or two, and Gillespie has answered in kind by directing everyone else to be as deadpan as possible. The conceit works as long as you've got utterly natural performers like Patricia Clarkson (as Lars' non-pushy doctor) and Paul Schneider (as his incredulous brother) to balance out Gosling's high-wire act. They bring the movie back down to earth; even still, cynics in the audience will understandably wonder where this idyllic Wisconsin farm town's mean, unaccepting bullies are. (At a seed convention, maybe?) And then there's the artfully dodged issue of sex: Lars explains early on that the chaste, devout Bianca is waiting for marriage, but certainly an agoraphobic, 30-year-old virgin, left to his own manual devices, would want to at least peek under the hood of his $7,000 succubus. For a movie that seems unafraid of exploring at least a few lonely, dark corners of the human psyche, you'd think that a little man-on-doll action wouldn't be out of the question. At this point in his career, it's obvious that an actor as fearless as Gosling would be up for it.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.