At one point in the sickly sweet Lars And The Real Girl, a fresh-faced young woman who still has barrettes in her hair and hearts on her socks weeps in quiet despair because an officemate has killed her teddy bear. The hero, a dysfunctional fantasist played by Ryan Gosling, then proceeds to revive the bear by giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the break table. It's that kind of movie. Those with a high tolerance for whimsy may find moments like these sweet and affecting, since Gosling's gesture represents the furtive beginnings of his return to humanity's embrace. (Or at least a return to the quirky stand-in for small-town humanity that only exists in indie films such as this one.) But in spite of the title, there's nothing particularly "real" about Lars And The Real Girl, just a couple layers of quirk several stops removed from the world as we know it.
Decked out in a goofy rustic wardrobe, with matted hair and an ill-tended mustache, Gosling digs deep into his Method bag of tricks to play an emotionally stunted loner who's retreated back into his shell. Taking up residence in the garage of his deceased father's home, Gosling brushes off his brother Paul Schneider and his pregnant sister-in-law Emily Mortimer whenever they invite him into the main house. When Gosling announces that he's found a girlfriend, they're relieved that he's made a connection with someone—until they discover his "girlfriend" is a plastic love doll named Bianca. Rather than splash cold water on his face, Gosling's doctor (Patricia Clarkson) suggests that Schneider, Mortimer, and everyone else in town pretend that Bianca is real and let Gosling come to terms with the situation in his own time.
It's a credit to the film's sober, down-to-earth tone that Lars And The Real Girl isn't as insufferably precious as it sounds; everyone onscreen cares enough about Gosling's plight to keep the story's basic ridiculousness from seeming too cartoonish. Still, though it's a dramatic improvement from the last film Craig Gillespie directed, the abysmal Billy Bob Thornton comedy Mr. Woodcock, the two share a one-joke premise that gets tired quickly. In Woodcock, all the comedy stems from Thornton's groin-thwacking sadist of a gym coach; here, it's a lot of deadpan "reaction shots" from the doll. It isn't that funny the first time around, and it isn't that moving when it needs to be, either.