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'Lars and the Real Girl' is a charming crowd-pleaser

3 1/2 stars out of four

You might think a movie about a man who falls in love with an anatomically correct "love" doll might make for an uneasy watch, and this movie would have been exactly that had it been a drama.

Luckily, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Nancy Oliver play "Lars and the Real Girl" mostly for laughs and never once take the story into seedy territory.

Lars (Ryan Gosling in yet another Oscar-worthy role) is an unmarried office drone living in his brother's garage. He is painfully shy, riddled with assorted nervous ticks and is a bad dresser to boot. His sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) tries without success to get him to sit still for dinner, and he regularly ignores the subtle advances of his co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner).

One evening, a borderline-gregarious Lars tells Karin he's bringing his new girlfriend Bianca over for dinner. Karin and Lars' brother Gus (Paul Schneider) are ecstatic and practically jump for joy until they meet "Bianca." After they pick their jaws up off the floor, they contemplate their options. Do they go along with the apparent ruse, metaphorically slap Lars upside the head or commit him? Is it better to have a happy Lars who falls for an inanimate object or a sullen, anti-social introvert?

Although it might not have been their intent, Gillespie ("Mr. Woodcock") and Oliver ("Six Feet Under") have made this year's version of "Little Miss Sunshine." It's a low-budget, art-house movie that screams "quirky" but brings with it just enough mainstream appeal to rope in the romantic comedy masses. It's perfect for couples and the over-30 female demographic - the same audiences who made "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" a sleeper smash.

The beauty of its comedy is that it's never overt, condescending or pandering. It's smart without being eggheaded or edgy. Oliver was wise to remove the squirm factor early on when she has Lars ask Karin to let Bianca stay in their guest room, as they are not married and sharing the same bed would be bad decorum.

Lars' interest in Bianca isn't sexual in the least, and every flesh-and-blood woman witnessing his gentlemanly behavior will be immediately wowed. Lars is certainly not clicking on all cylinders, but he is earnest and genuine with no hidden agenda.

Not surprisingly, Gosling is astonishing. With an impeccable taste in roles that practically mirrors that of Johnny Depp, Gosling never does the same thing twice and completely disappears into his characters. He ignores his own matinee-idol looks and can turn even the most manipulative, saccharin weeper ("The Notebook") into something worthwhile.

It sounds trite and cliched, but Gosling is the finest actor of his generation. (SKE)