Gracefully understated and thoroughly engaging, “Dan in Real Life” deftly interlaces heart and humor in a witty, warm and well-observed comedy about the unexpected and inconvenient blooming of romance at the weekend gathering of an extended family. Pic more than fulfills the promise evidenced in “Pieces of April,” the 2003 directorial debut of playwright-novelist-scriptwriter Peter Hedges (“About a Boy,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”). From a B.O. perspective, his follow-up has the potential to delight a demographically diverse audience, and generate enough favorable word of mouth to register as one of the fall’s true sleepers.
It’s intended as high praise to note that, in sharp contrast to most other recent American-made laffers, there’s a decidedly European air to Hedges’ effort. Indeed, it’s not at all difficult to imagine, say, Daniel Auteuil in the lead role winningly played here by Steve Carell.
Carell hits all the right notes while running the gamut from propriety to spontaneity as Dan Burns, writer of a newspaper column that gives the pic its title. In his column, Dan confidently dispenses advice to readers with burning questions about love, life and family matters. In his own life, however, Dan is uptight and overprotective as the widowed father of three young daughters: teenage Jane (Alison Pill), who’s seldom allowed to use her new driver’s license; middle child Cara (Brittany Robertson), who’s much too young in Dan’s view to have a boyfriend, much less an ardent suitor; and fourth-grader Lilly (Marlene Lawston), who’s forgiving, but not entirely uncritical, of her father’s way-uncool attitude.
Dan and his daughters aren’t exactly bonding blissfully when they arrive at his parents’ Rhode Island beach house for a semi-annual gathering of brothers and sisters, spouses and offspring. Dan’s mother (Dianne Wiest) quickly realizes it might be good to separate father and daughters for a bit. So she sends Dan off to buy newspapers in a nearby town — where, at a second-hand bookstore, he meets Maria (Juliette Binoche), who gets him to open up.
Here and elsewhere in “Dan in Real Life,” Hedges and co-scripter Pierce Gardner demonstrate a beguiling ability to take intriguing detours while covering familiar territory. Dan and Marie “meet cute,” of course. But their opening conversational gambits, involving recommended reading material, come off as fresh and funny.
The budding attraction is interrupted by a major complication: Marie turns out to be the visiting girlfriend of Mitch (Dane Cook), Dan’s fitness-instructor brother. Yet instead of generating elaborate deceptions, slapstick farce and other broadly comic antics, this plot device leads to richly amusing incidents of anxiety, indecision and embarrassment, as Marie and Dan try to hide their mutual attraction — and deny it to themselves and each other — while unavoidably close in a crowded house.
“Dan in Real Life” leans toward the obvious only when Dan is pushed by his mother into a blind date with a former classmate (Emily Blunt), a stunning sexpot who arouses Marie’s barely contained jealousy. It’s not that Blunt goes over the top — she stops short of that. But when she and Carell have a kind of dance-floor duel with Binoche and Cook, the scene, while undeniably funny, seems oddly odd of sync with the rest of the pic. (Moreover, the film isn’t the rollicking laff-riot it’s being be sold as in coming-attraction trailers that could turn off many of the very ticketbuyers who may enjoy it most.)
“Dan” works best when the humor flows directly from the basic set-up and the interacting central characters. Binoche is charming throughout — her accent is attributed to her character’s many and varied travels — but she’s most endearing when Marie and Dan are sharing their own private jokes about their complicated situation.
Supporting performances are aces across the board. If Dane Cook merits specific mention, it’s because his fine work here (much like his under-rated turn in “Mr. Brooks”) suggests he could be at the start of interesting film-acting career marked by the smart balancing of lead and supporting roles.
Tech package impresses without undue slickness. Sarah Knowles’ production design is precise and evocative, right down to the look of the laundry room at the beach house, and the tattered copy of Arthur Knight’s “The Liveliest Art” displayed at the second-hand bookstore. Original tunes composed and performed by Sondre Lerche are expressively melodic pop ditties bound to boost the soundtrack’s CD sales. Here, too, pic avoids the expected: The usual string of Top 40 standards and currently charting notables is conspicuous by its absence.