In bare description, Dan In Real Life sounds like a movie no one should want to see. Steve Carell plays a widowed parental advice columnist whose three daughters, get this, don't feel like he has all the answers. On an annual family outing to close up the summer home owned by his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), he meets a luminous, charmingly accented woman (Juliette Binoche) who's similarly smitten but reluctant to give up her phone number because she's on the way to meet her new boyfriend. That boyfriend? Carell's brother, played with puppy dog enthusiasm by Dane Cook.
Sounds unbearable, right? But here's the thing: It's a much funnier and moving film than that description would suggest. Novelist-turned-writer/director Peter Hedges follows up his Pieces Of April debut with a comedy that's at once overstuffed and surprisingly subtle. In a bustling environment that allows no privacy, Carell suffers an unexpected heartache that only the one person he can't reach out to could understand. Hedges lets his pain play out in long, noisy takes with all the noise and confusion of a real family gathering. The story advances over awkward dinners, rounds of charades, and competitive crossword competitions in which neither Carell nor Binoche get to say what's really on their mind. But the watery vulnerability of Carell's eyes and his surprising chemistry with Binoche tell the story going on beneath the surface. (Even Cook, as a man who isn't quite as charming as he thinks, sinks into his part well.)
While several scenes rely on the sort of farcical contrivance usually found in late-period Steve Martin vehicles, Hedges' approach, a nice song score from Sondre Lerche, and the performances—especially from Carell, who's been funnier but rarely this affecting—keep it all from seeming cheap. Until the end, that is. After awhile, Dan In Real Life starts providing tidy solutions to not-so-tidy problems, suggesting that maybe beneath the pleasing surface chaos the story's been a little too neat all along. When the happy ending comes it seems to arrive simply because it's time to end the film. It's a big cheat for a movie that's carefully avoided cheating, but maybe in the end there's only so much room for real life in this sort of family comedy, even the ones with those words in the title.