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In need of advice
Carell needs better material than weak ï ¿ ½Dan in Real Lifeï ¿ ½

2 stars out of 4

After the abysmal "Evan Almighty" - which in no way was his fault - Steve Carell needed a project to get him back on track. A movie that would show he could act without special effects and deliver the kind of range he displayed in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

In "Dan in Real Life," Carell shows incredible range. He's the designated straight man, not delivering a single comic line, torn between following his heart or protecting and honoring his family. For most of the movie, he's an emotional mess. He's a reserved, somewhat unlikable bag of nerves. Sounds pretty heavy, huh? Some of it is.

When the movie gets thoughtful or dramatic (mostly toward the end), it works well. The rest of the time, it is a cliche-riddled bad comedy that suggests a horrifying hybrid of "Cheaper By the Dozen" and the never-made "Walton's New England Beach Reunion."

"Dan in Real Life" is the sophomore effort from writer/director Peter Hedges, whose edgy, low-budget debut, "Pieces of April," broke new ground in the family-dysfunction genre. It had a deft eye and ear for what happens when family members grow up, drift apart and try to tolerate each other while pretending to bond during the holidays.

This being a Disney movie with a bigger budget, more stars and a family-oriented directive, Hedges had to radically alter his style. This is a kinder, gentler way of saying Hedges sold his soul. No matter how good the filmmaker, you can't take such a serious main plot, surround it with lame, wacky one-liners, awkward pratfalls and mawkish romantic comedy devices and expect it to work.

Advice columnist Dan (Carell), the father of three precocious daughters, has just about gotten over the death of his wife four years ago. After arriving in town for his family's annual reunion, he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a local bookstore and goes totally gaga. She might feel the same way if she wasn't already involved with another man and didn't recognize that Dan was trying way too hard to woo her.

As it happens, Marie is on her way to the same reunion to accompany her new boyfriend Mitch (Dane Cook), also Dan's younger brother. Oh, the irony.

Dan and Marie's own little reunion starts off uneasy and goes downhill from there. She charms the socks off of everyone and remains cool, but he starts behaving like a spurned, melancholy teenager, wearing his heart on both sleeves and his collar. We feel sorry for him for about five minutes, until his petulance becomes permanent. Marie's opinion of him only improves.

Things look up at the halfway mark with the introduction of Emily Blunt as Ruthie, a girl with a lifelong crush on Dan, who has transformed from ugly duckling into gorgeous swan. She temporarily boosts Dan's ego and turns Marie into a green-eyed monster. And then, she exits.

If Hedges wanted a better film, he should have brought Ruthie in earlier and kept her around for the duration. Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada," "The Jane Austen Book Club") improves every movie in which she appears just by showing up. Her five minutes is the best thing in the movie.

Co-produced by Focus Features and Disney's umbrella studio Touchstone, "Dan in Real Life" should have been an R-rated drama with black comedy injections - not the low-expectation, non-yuck-fest Hedges made. It could have been a contender instead of just another instantly forgettable also-ran. (Disney)