An intuitive performer can sense when to hang back and do nothing. The newcomer Bianca, who makes her debut in the confused but well-meaning comedy Lars and the Real Girl, has that trick down pat. While experienced actors emote around her, she is effortlessly enigmatic. Admittedly, she can't do much else - she is, after all, a life-sized rubber doll whose expression of inert wonder was fixed at the point of manufacture. But if Cameron Diaz can get away with it, why not Bianca? And if you remember not to leave her unattended beneath hot lights, she must be a breeze to work with: always hitting her marks, never throwing a tantrum, certain to stay where you left her.
The picture examines the effect Bianca has on a close-knit Midwestern community where lonely, withdrawn Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) introduces her as his girlfriend. Reactions range from the horror expressed by his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), to the uneasy compliance of Gus's wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), who obligingly sets an extra place at the dinner table and agrees to Lars's request that Bianca be allowed to stay in the spare room; it's only proper that he and Bianca don't sleep together, Lars explains, as they are both religious. This is a decent joke, and also convenient for the film, which needs to dispel salacious thoughts if its holistic message is to find purchase. Karin may peek under Bianca's PVC miniskirt to ascertain her anatomical correctness, but Lars never ventures beyond first base.
It is one of the peculiarities of the film that it removes all carnal associations, not only from Bianca, but also from her human co-stars. The writer, Nancy Oliver, worked on the HBO series Six Feet Under, which left no sexual permutation unexplored, but the coy tone of this, her first produced script, is more redolent of Northern Exposure. When Lars's doctor (Patricia Clarkson) advises the townsfolk to go along with the idea of Bianca being real, the film turns into an ingratiating celebration of small-town togetherness: Bianca gets a makeover, helps out at church and lands a part-time job, all the while bringing out the best in her salt-of-the-earth caretakers.
More successful are those early scenes peppered with comical reaction shots - the disbelieving faces in the doctor's waiting room, for instance, as Lars offers Bianca Midwest Living or Reader's Digest. (She chooses the former. She may be a doll but she's not stupid.)
The central idea of Lars and the Real Girl owes something to the fizziest work of the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who collaborated with Luis Buñuel on the Spaniard's subversive late-period comedies (including his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire). Carrière continued this campaign to satirise social etiquette in Max mon amour (diplomat's wife falls for chimpanzee) and Birth (ten-year-old boy claims to be reincarnation of woman's late husband), warped love stories that share with Buñuel's films a matter-of-fact approach to unfathomable circumstances. Lars and the Real Girl, on the other hand, makes such a self-congratulatory song and dance about its acceptance of Lars's peccadilloes that you end up concluding that the film-makers are protesting too much. If the director, Craig Gillespie, really believed in the broad-church world-view that he's flogging, he wouldn't feel the need to keep reassuring us, through his film's overstated jauntiness, that everything is tickety-boo.
Nor would the script inundate us with prosaic reasons for Lars's behaviour. The doctor tells Gus and Karin: "What we call mental illness can be a way to work something out." And hey presto! - it transpires that Lars is having a delayed response to his mother's death. Or maybe it's to a childhood cooped up with his taciturn father. Or is it that he feels abandoned by Gus? The film expends so much energy explaining behaviour it insists is normal that I lost track. Wrapped up in this cutesy-pie package, and set to a soothing, tinkling score, the result is incongruous - it's like a clinical case study that has doodles in the margins and smiley faces in the dots over every "i".
Pick of the week
The Orphanage (15)
dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
Spanish ghost story in the mould of The Innocents.
The 11th Hour (PG)
dirs: Nadia Conners, Leila Conners Petersen
Environmental documentary narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Mister Lonely (15)
dir: Harmony Korine
Celebrity impersonators, skydiving nuns - this has it all.