Lars and the Real Girl (***)

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Lars and the Real Girl takes a concept that sounds like it belongs in a bad mid-80s comedy starring Rob Lowe, and turns it into a film with characters I care about. Yes, the plot involves an anatomically correct “love” doll, but it’s really about loneliness, family, community and the prisons that we create for ourselves. It’s also, yes, very funny, but it’s funny about human nature, and it doesn’t take cheap shots.I can’t think of another film this year that more depends on the lead performance of its star. Lars and the Real Girl has a very talented ensemble cast, but its the portrayal of Lars by Ryan Gosling that really makes the film work. Gosling is a terrific young actor, just look at his work as the conflicted Jewish youth who becomes a Nazi in The Believer or in his Oscar-nominated role as the drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson for proof of his range (not to mention his brief stint as a Mouseketeer in the early 90s). At age 27, he is just beginning his career, and the future I’m sure will hold some amazing roles for him.Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a painfully shy young man who lives in the renovated garage of his late father’s home. His brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’ very pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live in the house. Lars resists all of Karin and Gus’ (mostly Karin’s) efforts to include him in their lives, and mostly sits in the garage in the dark. One day at his job as a computer programmer, his co-worker shows him a website featuring lifelike “romance” dolls. Flash forward six to eight weeks, and Lars is announces to a thrilled Karin and Gus that he has met someone.Imagine their surprise to learn “Bianca” is a doll. They consult a local doctor, Dagmar (the great Patricia Clarkson), who suggests that the only to cure Lars is to go along with it. “He’ll give up Bianca when he doesn’t need her anymore,” she says. So, the community bands together, going on with the charade. How this movie succeeds , and doesn’t turn into a vulgar disaster is something of a disaster, and much of the credit must go to the screenwriter, Nancy Oliver, and the director, Craig Gillespie.Ryan Gosling’s performance as Lars is a marvel of nuance and subtlety, it is so good, so effortless, that I forgot from time to time that I was watching a movie. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer find all the right notes in their roles, too, especially in the sequence where Karin practically drags Lars to dinner, and Paul and Lars have a stilted, barely civil conversation. Kudos to Schneider and Gosling for convincing me that they must really be brothers. The town makes up a kind of Greek Chorus, with strong supporting performances by Patricia Clarkson as Dr. Dagmar, the adorable Kelli Garner as the very real Margo and Nancy Beatty as Mrs. Gruner, who tells it like it is. I also enjoyed R.D. Reid’s work as Reverend Bock.Part of the charm is that as the town goes along with it, they too begin to see Bianca as a real person, and, to a certain extent, so does the audience. I was reminded of the similar effect that Wilson the volleyball had on audiences in Cast Away. Lars and the Real Girl walks a balancing act between the goofy and the tragic, and will leave you with a smile on your face. Check it out.

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