Lars and the Real Girl/Dan in Real Life 

Lars and the Real Girl: (PG) Three and a half stars

Dan in Real Life: (PG) Three stars

My big concern with Lars and the Real Girl and Dan in Real Life was that they would be as precious as parts of their ad campaigns make them appear. I mean, the poster for Dan in Real Life shows Steve Carell flashing sad puppy dog eyes while resting his head sideways on a stack of pancakes. How dreadfully adorable. And the poster for Lars and the Real Girl has Ryan Gosling carefully posed in an old stuffed chair against a pink and white wallpaper background, sporting matted hair and an otherworldly smile. It looks like someone trying to ape Rushmore director Wes Anderson, and though I enjoy Wes Anderson quite a bit, one of him is all the world needs.

The potential for mannered quaintness, coy humor, whimsical romance, schmaltzy life-lessons and general hamminess appeared high. Thankfully, each film manages to avoid succumbing to a terminal case of the cutes, though there are some scary moments.

Lars and the Real Girl, directed by Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock, for God’s sake) from a script by Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under), follows 27-year-old Lars (Gosling), who lives in his brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law’s garage (Emily Mortimer) in some small, Fargo-esque town. When Lars orders a very lifelike female sex toy and introduces her as his religious half-Brazilian, half-Danish, physically handicapped girlfriend, the local shrink (Patricia Clarkson) suggests that everyone humor Lars as he uses the doll to work out his issues.

And so everyone does, awkwardly at first, later with comical over-enthusiasm. There are some gooey moments, most notably a scene where a teddy bear is given CPR to calm the grown woman that loves him, but the film works because it is satisfying to witness a whole community pretending on behalf of one of their own. A strong cast sells the concept. Everyone does well, but the best performance comes not from Ryan Gosling (though he is fine) but from Paul Schneider, who acts as our lifeline to reality as older brother Gus. Schneider, one of my favorite actors, has some of the most priceless reactions in the film and does an excellent job being skeptical but supportive without falling into cliché.

Dan in Real Life, from writer/director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April), centers on Dan (Carell), a flustered advice columnist and widowed father of three girls. When they travel to the home of his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) for a family gathering, he has an innocent flirtatious encounter with a charming woman at a bookstore. Back at his folks’ place, he is stunned to learn that the woman (Juliette Binoche) is the girlfriend of his brother (Dane Cook, less annoying than usual). The sitcom storyline isn’t irritating because, contrived though it may be, it’s a pleasure watching Carell and Binoche struggling not to fall in love with each other. Dan in Real Life works because the talented cast plays the comedy straight.

One week. Two quirky comedies with the word “real” in their titles. Don’t get them mixed up. Just remember: Dan is the one with the guy from The Office and Lars is the one with the doll.

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