How painful to watch Ryan Gosling, one of the most elastic actors of his generation, smirk and gawp and grimace his way through Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie's smarmy little number about a pudgy midwestern office drudge who's so terrified of human contact that the only "person" he can bond with is a mail-order Brazilian sex doll.
Lurking within this high concept is a triggering trauma so harrowing (and banal) that it takes not only loving relatives, but a whole village of empathic Scandinavian stoics to sort it out. They're steered by a therapist played by Patricia Clarkson, who gives her dry best to such ancient bromides as "It's not a mental illness; it's a form of communication."
Lars and the Real Girl wobbles in a slow, toneless no-man's land between mawkish and schmaltzy while trafficking shamelessly in heartland stereotypes: Strapping older ladies trudge through glumly shot wintry slush to knit around the fireplace, while Lars plods obediently through the stages of grief. Gillespie has been roundly panned for Mr. Woodcock, but the positive buzz coagulating around this pandering rubbish may yet launch him on a glittering career of studio-indie pap.