All in the Family 

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When debates loom, political campaigns jostle to lower expectations for incorrigibly tongue-tied candidates. If the new Steve Carell vehicle "Dan in Real Life" is any indication, Hollywood has at last taken notice of this stratagem. The trailer for this breezy comedy is a compost of the sweet, the cute and the wholesome. Consequently, when the lights dim, the spine stiffens, as if bracing for an assault of tweeness.

So when it turns out that this movie at least attempts to refer now and then to something resembling the "real life" trumpeted in its title, one's impulse is to jump for joy. The impulse should be denied, of course, but the modest virtues of "Dan in Real Life" make it pass quite pleasantly, and its affectionate focus on family life seems sincere rather than concocted to please a focus group.

Carell is Dan, an advice columnist with a passel of problems. His youngest daughter is a dream child, but his relations with his two teenage daughters are in varying stages of meltdown. And, four years a widower, he seems determined not to love again.

All that's bound to change during an end-of-summer trip to coastal Rhode Island, where Dan's brothers and sisters, along with assorted spouses and children, annually convene to help their parents close up their vacation home. To his extravagant dismay, Dan finds himself falling hard for his brother's new girlfriend, Marie (Juliette Binoche), who for her part wonders if she hasn't chosen the wrong entrée into this impeccably jolly family circle.

Although the fortunes of this quasi-forbidden romance form the backbone of the plot, the movie's own love affair is with the idea of family itself -- not the family as imagined by Wes Anderson, with its elaborate curlicues of absurdist dysfunction, but as something more comfortable and less taxing: refuge.

On this point, screenwriters Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges (who also directs) have served the story well by setting it in a rustic cottage, where there is a piano and an abundance of construction paper, but no television or Internet. Much of the time we seem to be watching the last survivors of some long-ago age, when people actually produced their own entertainment. But the threatening world out there keeps breaking in, as it does with the words "You Wish," stitched, in accordance with recent fashion, into the denim backside of Dan's 14-year-old.

This is no Norman Rockwell painting. The young children are sometimes bored to tears. Dan's mom (Dianne Wiest) feels for her lonely son, but can express her concern only through rank interference in his affairs. In the most entertaining and broadly played scenes, Dan's daughter of the appalling jeans (Brittany Robertson) wails inconsolably and curses her father because this vacation has sundered her from the love of her life, an acquaintance of three days' standing.

Dan scoffs at his daughter's infatuation, but he's one to talk. His enchantment with the lovely and rather brilliant Marie is certainly understandable. She is an American's vague fantasy of European sophistication, and thus of that certain je ne sais quoi missing from our provincial, workaday lives. She's been everywhere, knows no end of languages, and is a wizard in the kitchen. She's the kind of person who says her idea of a perfect day is to awaken in a land where she doesn't speak the language and cannot communicate.

In other words, she's a little intolerable, but that doesn't stop everyone in Dan's family from hanging on her every accented word. What she sees in Dan, however, what with his warmed-over Dr. Phil-isms and doubtful folk wisdom, is a bit of a mystery, and not one the movie is at any pains to clear up. Still less do we learn why she's with Dan's unlettered and vaguely loutish brother (Dane Cook) in the first place. It's best just not to dwell on matters like these and, as Dan the columnist might advise, concentrate on the good stuff.

As a performer, Carell still seems a little like Pinocchio, struggling to emerge from the rigid, vastly entertaining posturings that brought him fame and to act like a real human being. He's making progress. Like the movie itself, Carell's performance doesn't really give you a reason to leave home, but if you find yourself watching it, you will be pleasantly surprised. To a degree. (PG-13) 95 min. S



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