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'Lars' toys with love and tolerance

If genuine virtue seems scarce in Hollywood, it's because the movie industry excels at and profits by vice. Virtue is hard to come by. So when a movie about a guy who orders a sex doll off the Internet can turn vice into virtue, something miraculous has occurred. "Lars and the Real Girl" achieves that kind of miracle.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Nancy Oliver, the movie nestles us in a frosty rural Wisconsin town. When Lars, a pathologically shy cubicle drone played by Ryan Gosling, falls in love with Bianca, the life-size plastic woman who arrived in a crate, the rest of town does too. A few people bat an eyelash, including Lars's older brother Gus (Paul Schneider), who's been letting Lars live in the garage behind the house he shares with his pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). But for the most part everybody accepts Bianca as a member of the community. In a funny scene at the local church, folks worry that Lars has crossed a line. But these are people with their own idiosyncrasies (kleptomania, dressing up cats, etc.). Who are they to judge?

When she arrives, Bianca looks like an escapee from the Pussycat Dolls (fishnet getup, thick eyeliner, pillowy lips), but a homely makeover makes her look perfectly local. She doesn't speak out loud, but Lars can hear her (eventually so can everyone else). Their conversations range from intense to loving. And when they go out on the town, she's in a wheelchair. Soon enough Bianca is volunteering at the local hospital and winning a school board election. The town's easy embrace of her and Lars, who seems somehow less puzzling to most people, is simultaneously amusing and poignant.

It helps that every actor in every part is effortlessly good - none more than Patricia Clarkson, who is wonderful as Dagmar, the town's family doctor who manages to treat Lars without the faintest whiff of skepticism.

Once a week while Bianca undergoes "special tests," the doctor tries to unpack Lars's dysfunction in the next room. Her approach is light yet effective. Before their sessions, we knew that Lars was considerate and compassionate - a neurotic, true, but a wholesome and gentlemanly one all the same. In his conversations with Dagmar, he reveals himself to be lucid and perceptive, too. This is therapy that both heals and clarifies, and Clarkson makes casual restraint look extremely easy.

Eventually, Lars begins to notice a milky, sweet-natured co-worker (Kelli Garner), and we realize that Bianca is actually like a set of romantic training wheels. And it's fascinating - for us and for the townspeople - to watch Lars shed his buxom psychological crutch. Gosling is fascinating, too. No jitter, stutter, head-cock, eye-roll, or awkward physical movement is too much or too studied. He's a natural, jazzy actor who thrives when lost inside actual damaged characters (imagine Montgomery Clift minus the personal doom).

Two of his loveliest moments here are musical. In the first, Gosling sings Nat King Cole's "L-O-V-E" lying in a tree house in a kind of childish operetta voice. In the other, he dances at a party. The song is Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)," whose lyrics of romantic dislocation capture the generous heart of the movie.

"Lars and the Real Girl" is poised on the line between earnestness and farce. This is the knife's edge that separates Frank Capra from Preston Sturges. The movie believes in the innate goodness of people, but it's not on the lookout for an object of mockery. In many ways, it could serve as a rebuke to Lars von Trier's "Dogville," his heartless but shrewd dissection of American intolerance and the hypocrisies of Christian charity. Gillespie and Oliver persuasively embrace all the ideals of rural American life that von Trier found imaginary.

Their movie certainly works as a story of all kinds of tolerance, but it's too rooted in these characters' personalities to be purely allegorical. Of course, if you crave a metaphor for this town and its residents, look up. It's heaven.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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Lars and the Real Girl

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Written by: Nancy Oliver

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, and Patricia Clarkson

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some sex-related content)

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