Steve Carell in Reel Life

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Merie W. Wallace / SMPSP / Touchstone

Steve Carell in Dan In Real Life

In the comedy hits of the spring and summer — Blades of Glory, Knocked Up, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Dave, Superbad — guys ruled. Dude comedy is all about males in competition: verbal and physical sparring, being assertive, spitting out insults, destroying the adversary. Basically, bullying. The men in dude comedies are Neanderthals.

Come the fall, and the studios think filmgoers are in a gentler mood. So we get the more traditional mode of movie romance — the kind Hollywood specialized in for ages before it went out of style in the 90s — but which now might be called chick comedy. The protagonist is still a man (the moguls seeming to believe that no actress draw the big crowds), but romantic connection is the goal. And the tone is on the soft side. Chick comedy is about men compromising: trying to be nice, keeping secrets, coping with frustration and embarrassment, finding the middle way. Basically, being bullied. The men in chick comedies have evolved into losers.

Autumn's first big comedy, The Heartbreak Kid, tried to have it both ways: apply the boisterous tone to the tale of a bridegroom (Ben Stiller) who finds himself in the marriage from Hell and wants out. The movie earned only $14 million its first weekend, about half what the experts had predicted, and was the first big flop of the fall.

Now comes Dan in Real Life with Steve Carell, an actor whose appealing, interior, sad-sack demeanor is made for chick comedy. He plays Dan Burns, an advice columnist and widowed father of three girls, who instantly falls for the lovely Marie (Juliet Binoche) when they meet at a bookstore. Darn the luck, she turns out to be the new girlfriend of Dan's younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook, who's already had his own failed fall comedy, Good Luck Chuck). A mainstream comedy with an indie vibe, Dan hopes to be the film that gets couples back in the theater for something they'd both respond to.

When it opened on Friday, Dan was decapitated by Saw IV, grossing only about $4 million to the horror movie's $14 million. Then it picked up steam Saturday, while Saw lost some teeth. Older viewers may catch up with Dan; in industry parlance, the film may have legs. Let's hope so, not because Dan is anything special, but for the sake of grown-up comedy, which this one intermittently tries to be.

From the start, director Peter Hedges cues Dan's mellow, mildly rueful tone. We hear the sensitive strumming of an acoustic guitar; we see Dan seen doing his kids' laundry and getting little credit from them for being a full-time dad; and at the bookstore, Marie says that what she's looking for is "something funny, but not big ha-ha-ha laughter...something human and funny that could sneak up and surprise you." It could be a recipe for the old-fashioned or chick comedy, and a template for Dan in Real Life.

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