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A sweet 'Real Life'

At first, it's like a personals ad: Widowed male seeks attractive woman. Must love children and know a bit about everything.

Only here, the kind and unassuming Dan (a powerfully real Steve Carell) isn't seeking anyone at all. Instead he's buried himself in the minutiae of everyday parenting: making peanut butter and banana sandwiches or convincing a teenage daughter that what she feels for her latest suitor is not, in fact, true love. Far from a 40-year-old virgin, Carell here appears thoughtful, reflective, even (gasp) deep. And he plays the everyday moments -- whether frustrating or funny -- with equal restraint. As a 40-something frazzled father of three, he faces challenges at once dramatic and universal. Every struggling single parent can relate.

Distracted to the point of dazed, he's become Dan the domestic. Always in control, he keeps his sorrows private and allows no room for pity, never mind romance. His other life, aka "Dan in Real Life," is his successful regular column for a New Jersey newspaper. Ironically, he offers family/parenting advice, setting boundaries based on triumphs and missteps with his strong-willed yet charming daughters.

The story spans less than a week, but it succinctly captures not only the daughters growing up, but Dan growing apart from them as well. It is these incremental distances that are at once heartbreakingly tender, and yet delightfully true. The juxtaposition of Dan's closeness and his occasional total disconnect keeps the otherwise cheesy plot from reverting into melodrama.

After a flirty chance encounter with Marie (the exotic and enjoyable Juliette Binoche), Dan perks up. The only obstacle -- she's seeing someone else, someone he knows. And in the ensuing days, things go from exciting to predictable to somewhat unbelievable. The awkward moments, the adult humor, and the audience being in on the secret, all turn an otherwise formulaic story into a romantic mystery: Will he? Will she? Will they ever ...?

Dan's brother, perennial bachelor Mitch (a rollicking, animated Dane Cook) suffers no such gray areas. Free-spirited and fun, he offers the perfect complement to his low-key, burdened older brother. Hoping he'll rejoin the social world, Dan's parents (a marvelous and motherly Dianne Wiest and the always amusing John Mahoney) provide a welcome combination of nagging and supportive retreat.

Between the jealousy and deception, this hopeful if corny throwback to a simpler time, when all the members of an extended family actually drove to coastal Rhode Island to hang out together, is surprisingly touching, sneakily uplifting and restorative of one's confidence in the middle-age eligible American man.

Dan's tribulations -- romantic and familial -- show him calmly dealing with the very best and worst in the people around him. And like them, we too hope he'll emerge from his lonely shell.

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