It's hard not to root for Steve Carell. After all, everything he touches seems to turn to solid gold, including NBC's hit television show "The Office" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
But in the romantic comedy "Dan in Real Life," Carell creates silver rather than gold.
Directed by Peter Hedges ("Pieces of April"), the story is simple: It's about a widower named Dan Burns (Carell), a newspaper advice columnist who is trying to raise three daughters - adorable 8-year-old Lily (Marlene Lawston), 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) who thinks she's in love and 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill) who thinks she should be able to drive.
Although able to help solve his readers' problems, Dan finds it difficult to handle his own tribulations, which includes trying to get over his wife's death which occurred four years earlier. You know that old saying, practice what you preach? Well, this is a classic example of someone not abiding by that philosophy, an advice columnist at that. In a twist of irony, it turns out Dan hasn't been reading enough of his own recommendations.
Rather than face his own problems, Dan packs up the car and takes the girls to his parents' (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) home in Rhode Island for the annual family gathering. The setting is beautiful, located on some beachfront property which makes for a peaceful atmosphere for what eventually becomes an awkward and tense family situation.
Suffering from plenty of stress and lack of sleep, Dan is advised - or rather forced - by his mother to "get lost" for a little while. He obliges and heads to a local book store where he meets and falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche).
The chemistry works between Carell and Binoche, meaning it's not forced and there is plenty of shyness and ineptness. The problem is Marie turns out to be the girlfriend of Dan's brother Mitch (Dane Cook), and things go spiraling downhill for Dan once he learns this.
In between all the laughs and once Dan realizes that he has been neglecting his family - what really matters - it's too late: he's fallen in love.
"Dan" is a movie filled with awkward situations, which Carell masters to perfection. By far this is his best performance on the big screen. While giving just mediocre performances in "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Evan Almighty," Carell truly soars in this film. In fact, you end up feeling sorry for him more than anything else by the end of the film, which is exactly what makes it work.
The writing is dead-on, primarily aimed for adults; however, younger audiences will appreciate the comedy that the hyperactive Cook brings to the film, as well.
As a bonus and rather unexpected treat, the melodic soundtrack by singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche is superb. It compliments the movie quite well, having has the ability to change with the plot throughout the film.
A great line from "Dan" is, "love is not a feeling; love is an ability." This movie has the ability to not only surprise you but at the same time make you laugh. After all, that's what Carell does best.
"Dan in Real Life" is rated PG-13 for some innuendo. It has a running time of 95 minutes.