There are moments when Steve Carell’s Dan, the beleaguered widower and father of three who spends much of “Dan in Real Life” not so secretly pining after the lovely but unavailable Juliette Binoche, loses his cool. They are quite obviously scripted moments, as an elegantly understated romance veers ever so briefly into the world of abrasive slapstick, and they hit all the wrong notes. Dan is many things — bitter, depressed and overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a single dad — but he’s not stupid.
“Dan in Real Life” is best when it remembers that, when it respects the intelligence of its characters enough not to subject them to scenarios that feel conspicuously fabricated. Here, after all, is a rarity — a genuinely touching comedy that resists the urge to lean too heavily on its brand-name stars, Carell and comedian Dane Cook.
Neither is playing exactly to type: Carell’s languid melancholy seems less a lighthearted put-on than his deadpan turn in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or his boorish buffoonery in “The Office,” while Cook is a portrait of restraint, a far cry from his normally manic self. Both keep the action moving at a brisk pace (with Cook excelling in a smaller but substantial role), but it is the charming, intelligent rapport between Dan (Carell) and Marie (Binoche) that proves the film’s greatest strength.
From the moment they meet — in predictably cute fashion at a small-town Rhode Island bookstore — Dan and Marie seem destined to end up in one another’s arms, provided she can get a word in edgewise. (Dan spends their initial meeting recounting his life story; had he asked, he might have learned that Marie was en route to meeting her new boyfriend — Dan’s brother, Mitch — at a semiannual family reunion.)
Already sinking under the weight of parental responsibility — at least two of his daughters think he’s hopelessly out of touch — Dan doesn’t handle the revelation well. When he’s not brooding, he acts out in ways that seem uncharacteristically petulant, but it is the quieter moments he shares with Marie that make their burgeoning romance convincing. Clearly, she’s with the wrong guy. The only question is when she’ll take enough time away from Mitch and Dan’s weekend of family-oriented fun (highlighted, no less, by an elaborate talent show) to figure it out.
If this all sounds a tad precious, it doesn’t feel that way. Carell and Binoche keep the mood effectively light, with a little help from John Mahoney, who has built a cottage industry in recent years playing semigruff, painfully honest fathers. Together, they let the good-natured humor in Peter Hedges and Pierce Gardner’s script breathe, and the result is a funny and engaging comedy that strikes enough high notes to be one of the season’s most pleasant surprises.
Dan in Real Life ***
Starring: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson
Written by Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
Directed by Peter Hedges
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes