Reviewed by David Levinson

EVERY YEAR parental-advice columnist Dan Burns (Steve Carell) migrates North to Rhode Island with his three daughters in tow, where they take part in a family get-together at their grandparents’ lakeside home.

Back in New Jersey though, Dan is left (thanks to the loss of his wife four years prior) unattended in the threatening landscape of the opposite sex – one prone to stony coups of silence; tectonic hormonal-shifts; and the sudden emergence of skimpy underwear atop the family washing pile. In the case of the latter, they belong to 15-year old Cara, contrary to Dan’s hopeful (and totally misguided) assumption that they’re 17-year old’s Jane’s; same goes for the boy who shows up to walk Cara to school, and who, vying to plug the welling threat of her sexuality, Dan warns she’s incapable of loving, given the nearsightedness of her age.

So it goes that – after systematically maiming Jane’s hopes of ever learning to drive (“it’s the other drivers I’m worried about,” he tells her), and wrenching Cara from her beau’s side at a locale coffee shop – the four pile into Dan’s ragged station-wagon, and head North. On the road, met by stern disavowals from the older two, Dan is advised by 9-year old Lilly that he’s “not a bad father, just a bad dad.”

For all their wholesome lack of bite, these standoffs between Dan and his daughters nevertheless kickstart the hum of lite discord that percolates throughout Peter Hedges’ warm comedy Dan in Real Life. Named after Dan’s weekly column, the film’s title is an attempt to draw out a basic discrepancy – between the man’s sage-like aura in-print, and the phenomenon of waning control he experiences over his own bloodline. For the most part, in relaying Dan’s distress, Hedges’ great (and keenly simple) ploy lies in running the Burns clan as a non-stop hive of activity; consequently, moments such as Dan’s revelation that he’s fallen in love suddenly erupt into manic fits of choreography, so that, by the time word reaches the final in a line-dance of extended family, the delicacy of the sentiment is violated.

Not that sentiment alone proves enough to trounce the fact that the object of Dan’s affection is in fact his brother’s European girlfriend: By a stroke of bohemian providence, Dan first meets Maria (Juliette Binoche) in a secondhand bookstore, where he wins her over by posing as a shop assistant. Ditching the charade, however, the two bounce to a local coffeehouse, where mutual hesitancies dissolve under the woozy intimacy of muffled grey skies and a Sondre Lerche-backed score. Dan then walks her to her car, and, in spite of her parking-lot admonition that she has a boyfriend, presses her for a number, only to be reintroduced to her fifteen minutes later by his brother Mitch.

In light of Maria’s attachment, what follows between her and Dan is less a case of stifled yearning, and more a one-man show of cycling frustration. It’s here, in his awkward stabs at liberation, that Carell reveals himself as a comic of such fine-tuning – mounting increasingly bizarre pleas for attention that climax in his dancefloor dry-humping of an ex-classmate in a bid to win over Maria . Scarcely mean-spirited though, Dan’s outbursts remain all the more human for how out-of-place they seem: Passive-aggressive to the hilt, his swinging between poles invests him with a confused, skittish energy, as he orbits the composed nucleus of his parents’ household. Maria, all the while, remains unflappable - slotting seamlessly into the family plot, and mediating catastrophe by proving both capable of loving Mitch, as well as offering Dan a serene rejection that never curdles into indifference. Even when it becomes increasingly apparent who she’s more suited to, Hedges never stacks the deck by aimlessly belittling Mitch, nor implying Maria is somehow being held against her will; for all its quaint foreshadowing, the reality of her love for Dan seems to strike all at once, flowering into an impossibly sweet union. As the overseer of his characters’ fates, Hedge’s achievement lies in creating a comedy of misaligned hearts that’s resoundingly sensitive to the needs of all involved – and while that consideration may sometimes stray into the realm of pat (cf. the ending), it’s a small price to pay for a movie so earthy, well-considered and defiantly mainstream.