Lars is a loner. He spends his time living in his brother's garage, somewhere in the mid-West of the United States- somewhere no doubt with a Scandinavian heritage. He is encouraged by his brother and his sister in law to engage socially- but Lars refuses to. In the end, in a moment of desperation Lars orders a sex doll off the internet, called Bianca, and tells everyone that she is his girlfriend, come from abroad (she is half Brazilian, half Danish). His family, worried about him, take Bianca and him to the doctors (supposedly to make sure that Bianca has settled in alright but really to find out about Lars) the doctor tells them to go along with Lars's delusion as there is something that through it he needs to conquer. They do and the story of the film revolves around the way that Lars's delusory girlfriend is accepted by the local town and also with the growth of Lars himself through the experience of having this doll around.
There is something deeply perverse about this. It is like something out of Edgar Allan Poe in the sense that we are seeing a human being express strong physical attachment to a plastic sex doll. The film tries to cloak this in a sentimental small town piety- 'she was a teacher, she was a lesson in courage and Bianca loved us all especially Lars': well its true, until you recognise that she was a plastic doll and not a real human being. Twist and turn the tale it gets more complicated- we never quite see inside of Lars, we never see inside his head to what is driving him into his relationship with Bianca. He cannot cope with a normal woman of flesh and blood for some reason which is never explained- and the story takes as its focus the externality of Lars's character. Ryan Gosling plays him with a faint amused smile but without any introspection and this lack of psychological depth creates the atmosphere of the film: it makes the dark places of Lars's mind light.
If the film is not about psychology, what is it about? In part it is about community and compassion- it has a Capraesque tone running through it. This small town come together to enable one of them to live with his delusion and enable him to grow through it. In a sense that has to be lauded- but in a sense the tale is too optimistic. Because we never get inside Lars's head we never really understand what the nature of the illness that he suffers from is and so whether to see this town's actions as the kindness of friends to someone who cannot face, for a moment, real life or an abdication of responsibility. Are they aiding someone or are they in going along with the delusion merely helping a madman to make a fool of himself? I'm not sure that despite the happy ending and the medical piety of the local doctor, that question can ever be answered without a much more thorough examination of what and who Lars is.
What sustains the film are the performances. Emily Mortimer does brilliantly at playing the sister in law- she has just the right amount of weak and perhaps even vain strength. Gosling does a reasonable job- though the problems with Lars's character- in a sense he is a doll as much as Bianca is create problems that the actor cannot get over. Both Paul Schneider playing Lars's brother and Kelli Garner his love interest, Margo, do well: I liked Mr Schneider's ability to get the emotionless man who almost breaks down with the force of what is happening around him. The film is in reality divided into three parts- the first of which is the most satisfying and looks at the way that Mortimer and Schneider's characters react to Lars's new girlfriend and partly because of both of their performances and partly because the material is much more realistic that is the most successful part of the film.
The point on which the film stands or falls though is whether you believe in Lars. I've said that Lars is effectively a blank- we are given no kind of insight into what kind of condition he has- apart from some general guilt about pregnancy and a fear of being touched. I was left with questions about Lars rather than answers and questions about the nature of male relationships with women. Perhaps this is naive of me but I don't see a sex doll as a progression between loneliness and a relationship- rather I see it as a diversion because the hard thing in the relationship is coping with another person. Perhaps the film makers are right and imagine Lars taking Bianca's reality seriously and that realisation pushing him towards a relationship but I struggled with it as a concept. I also struggled with the idea that Margo would wait so long for Lars to fall out of love with a sex doll; it just seemed implausible to me.
I'm sure that there are lots of people who see this movie as a sweet reaffirmation of the value of community and the way that love is something that you have to learn to be an adult, and maybe its a reflection on me rather than the film that I couldn't. But I couldn't see it like that- I thought it was implausible. The last reason I think that the film is implausible is because it doesn't recognise that much of the problem of loneliness is not self inflicted or self induced. It dodges the question about loneliness- which is not so much that people do not desire love- but that others do not love them (perhaps that reveals a personal fear or perception of life). Lars ends the story walking into the distance with Margo- that is the most implausible cut of all.