Written by Nancy Oliver, a writer and coproducer of HBO's merrily morbid family saga, Six Feet Under, and directed by Craig Gillespie, whose other 2007 release is Mr. Woodcock, the Billy Bob Thornton (ahem) masterpiece, Lars and the Real Girl spins on the kind of clever conceit that might have made for a good Saturday Night Live sketch.
But dressed up as a quirky deadpan indie, a pancake-flat melodrama with a gently comic tone, Lars and the Real Girl becomes increasingly precious. Taking a profoundly wounded soul and watching him heal, with the help of neighbors, loved ones, and his own hard-won epiphanies, is a worthy idea.
But the central gimmick of the film remains just that - a gimmick - as genuine emotion gives way to shaggy-dog shtick.
And so Lars unpacks the doll, whom he dubs Bianca, dressing her in prim, proper outfits, and propping her in a wheelchair. She's of Brazilian and Danish heritage, he says. She's a missionary, she's touring the world. Lars' brother (Paul Schneider) and his wife (Emily Mortimer) are understandably freaked by the appearance of Lars' new friend, and the grin that's pasted on the hitherto mopey, painfully shy guy's face.
They consult with the town doctor (indie trouper Patricia Clarkson), who suggests that the couple humor Lars' delusions, as he works through the traumas that have upended his life. She even starts meeting with Lars herself. And the rest of the town, from neighbors to churchgoers to Margo (Kelli Garner), a friendly coworker who represents Lars' real shot at romance, consort to help the winky, blinky Lars work through his issues by pretending that Bianca isn't a figment of his imagination.
Gosling, nominated this year for an Oscar for his chilling portrayal of a crack-addict school teacher in Half Nelson, shambles through Lars and the Real Girl with a goofball mien, a kind of holy fool vibe. The rest of the very able cast offer various shades of befuddlement, bemusement, and folksy compassion.
But by movie's end, it seems like the only one giving a truly genuine performance is Bianca. Mouth-agape, steadfastly mum.
Lars and the Real Girl **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Craig Gillespie. With Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Schneider and Kelli Garner. Distributed by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and MGM Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five. Opening in more area theaters Oct. 26.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.