Steve Carell in Reel Life

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Merie W. Wallace / SMPSP / Touchstone

Steve Carell in Dan In Real Life

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Marie and Dan hit it off and go for coffee, where she falls further in love — at least in like — with him. Now, everybody knows that Steve Carell is lovable. On The Daily Show he was the effortlessly genial (and, by the end of each segment, desperate) Produce Pete. He bore up manfully to all manner of insults in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Evan Almighty; he even lends a certain besieged menschiness to the role of the boss in The Office. But Hedges thinks the audience needs its subjective Carell-atives reinforced, so as Dan woos Marie with his sweet anecdotes we get about a quillion reaction shots of her smiling, twinkling, appreciating his very special Stevitude. It's one of many times the movie tells us what to feel, as if charm could be force-fed. Can't. The characters in a movie shouldn't be having more fun than he audience.

Hedges, a novelist turned screenwriter, wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape, about a normal guy (Johnny Depp) and his wildly dependent mom and brother, and made his directing debut with the 2003 Pieces of April, about a normal gal (Katie Holmes) trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for her weird, disapproving family. That should explain why Hedges was attracted to Pierce Gardner's original script about a normal guy who finds love with the wrong woman while spending a weekend with his eccentric family.

How so? The Burnses — there must be 20 of them in this Rhode Island home — are fiercely communal and insanely competitive. They make the Kennedys seem sluggish. They do aerobics and play touch football on the front lawn. When they're not engaged in Scrabble or an improvised singalong, they break up into speed-solving crossword teams. Come evening, there's a family talent show. Dan and Mitch duet on Pete Townshend's "My Love Opened the Door" (as if that perky tune hadn't been worn out in a half-dozen movies and commercials for J.C. Penney and NBC). And the children, I'm not kidding, give mime performances. In Wedding Crashers and other movies, broods like this are easy butts for derision. But Hedges takes them at face value. We're supposed to think they're not hatefully oppressive; they just have a lot of energy they want to burn off together.

But why do they treat Dan as the runt of the litter? They must think he loves washing his kids' clothes at home, because when he visits his parents they make him sleep in the laundry room. In any matter relating to Dan's rebellious daughters, the family reflexively takes the girls' side over their dad's. His own father (John Mahoney) treats him with the bluff bonhomie of men who wouldn't be caught dead in an intimate discussion. And Dan's mom (Dianne Wiest), it's clear, has been nagging him all his life. "Get lost for a while," she tells him one morning. "No, get lost — it's not a request." Wiest passes along this command with a painted-on smile, a sing-song voice and the suggestion that only good manners keeps her from screaming; it's as if she's spent a long day conversing with four-year-olds.

One of the effects of the rowdy, guy-centric Judd Apatow movies is that, by establishing new rules for movie comedy, they've make milder romantic ones seem like relics from the 1950s. The Hedges film has antique contrivances aplenty, from a scene where Marie must enter a shower with Dan already hiding inside, to an job interview Dan has, which takes place, with infuriating improbability, at the family home with his parents present. There's also the sitcom omniscience of his daughters, who are exasperated by his paternal protectiveness. "You're a good father," his youngest tells him, "but sometimes a bad dad." (This is supposed to be sage; I think it's closer to rude.) In an early scene Dan lectures his middle child that "You can't fall in love in three days." Then he meets Marie and does it in three minutes. See? The advice columnist can't take his own advice. Hilarious.

Say this for 50s comedies. Back then America still had a few social conventions and sexual taboos to serve as hurdles or brick walls for the plot. Here, we're to assume that the only reason Dan and Marie don't tell the family they have a thing for each other is that they don't want to hurt Mitch's feelings. The real reason is: they're in a movie, and there wouldn't be one if the characters didn't do implausible things. Hence the creakiest gimmick in all of fiction, the HIBK (Had I But Known) ploy. It worked in Oedipus Rex, but in the intervening 2,500 years the trope has got a bit stale. Here it's applied so that the movie can be 98 mins. instead of 28.

In a brief review in TIME magazine this week, I gave Dan a gentleman's B-. Let me try to remember why. Because the pressure of keeping his ardor secret turns Dan pleasingly cranky. "I am going to make myself unattractive," he whispers to Marie, "so as not to encourage inappropriate feelings" — but by then he's already become way less adorable. When he's at the edge of a lake with some of the kids, they're skipping stones across the water; Dan throws a rock with the fury of a Spartan at Thermopylae. Emily Blunt, a beguiler in My Summer of Love and The Devil Wears Prada, brightens up a scene in a bar. And when Act 3 finally rolls around, Dan and Marie have a pretty tryst at a bowling alley, and the movie locates the sweet mood it's been seeking.

I'll be interested to see how Carell's movie career develops. So far, Hollywood has decided that his friendly, slightly starchy passivity needs to be tested and twisted by a host of aggressive characters. That game plan should change next summer with the remake of Get Smart; he plays the Maxwell Smart role Don Adams had on the 60s TV spy parody, which means that Carell will presumably be lowering his IQ and raising his dander. I want to think that Carell has a bright future in movies, that there's room for his good nature and expert timing in any kind of comedy, chick or dude.

But nothing can touch Produce Pete.

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