Comedians with an edge who evolve into Hollywood actors tend to follow a familiar pattern. Over time, they get squishy, becoming all tender and ''humanized.'' Richard Pryor more or less set the template for this ritual of co-optation, and his example was followed by Robin ''I Love Me!'' Williams and Jim Carrey, who's had an on-again, off-again fling with domesticating his anarchy. Steve Carell, after The 40 Year-Old Virgin, already looked halfway to premature fogy-hood as the bearded yuppie Noah of Evan Almighty (he liked doing that white-man dance a little too much), and I was dreading the worst when I went to see Dan in Real Life, in which Carell plays a family-values newspaper columnist who is also the widowed father of three daughters. Would he find romance? Gag me!
The surprise is that Dan in Real Life turns out to be a nimble and supple and moving comedy, and that Carell, instead of drowning in a bath of ''warmth,'' holds on to his inner wild man in the shrewdest way possible. Carell's Dan Burns is a good father, maybe a heroic one, but a bit overprotective; he's clenched with fear. Taking his bratty princess brood for a weekend reunion at his folks' idyllic home on the Rhode Island shore, he gets sucked into the swirl of parents, brothers, kids, and it's a shock to see a family house-party movie ruled by affection rather than backbiting. The first morning, Dan drives into town for a newspaper, and it's there he meets the one that he didn't dare hope to meet. Marie (Juliette Binoche) has glossy chestnut curls, an overbite to die for, and all the tenderness and moxie and understanding that a woman would need to want to be with a lonely man with three daughters.
Dan presses for her number, even though she's got a boyfriend, and then returns in a blissful daze. Only to learn that the boyfriend is...his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). And she's staying for the weekend! It's a jaw-dropper of a twist, and here's the thing: There's no enmity. Dan loves his bro, who looks like he might be settling down at last. Dan has to hold in his feelings more than that, he has to try to kill them and the whole movie spins around Carell's inspired performance as a man who is going quietly nuts because the universe has decided to toy with him. He pines, he simmers, he rages, he curses the gods and he does it all under the radar, so that only the audience can see it. Well, okay, he also does another white-man dance, but this one is so furious, so expressive of everything he can't express, that it's worthy of a silent clown.
Dan in Real Life was directed by Peter Hedges, who made the far shtickier Pieces of April (2003), and the movie's fast wit never undercuts its decency. It's like a sitcom directed by Eric Rohmer. The film is so winning it got me to like Dane Cook or at least to enjoy his puppyish narcissism when it's this well used. Binoche, radiant, gives the most direct performance she has in years. In the era of the fading chick flick, it's bracing to see a movie about two grown-ups who fall in love because they look as if they truly do need each other. Dan in Real Life is a comedy of faith that, in its wised-up feel-good way, restores yours. A–