This is one of those films that you might have heard of but never saw or, like me, saw it way back when, enjoyed it then, and wondered, "If it was as good as I remember it being, then why wasn't a bigger deal been made of it?" So I purchased it and watched it again and, yep, it is that good.
Steve Carell plays Dan Burns, a widower, advice columnist, and father of three daughters. He's struggling from the fairly recent loss of his wife and with raising his girls and decides to take the kids on a family retreat to a big cabin on the shores of Rhode Island. It's a multigenerational event, with Dan's parents, played by Dianne Wiest and "Frasier"'s John Mahoney (who are great, by the way), his brothers, sister, and their families all gathering together at what appears to be the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. When Dan's mom sends him into town to pick up a newspaper and take a breather from the family, he meets a lovely woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche), and after a humorous encounter, becomes smitten, and she with him.
It turns out that Marie, however, is attached to someone else, and that someone is Dan's brother, Mitch. But Dan doesn't find this out until back at the cabin, when Mitch (played by Dane Cook) introduces Dan to Marie. Dan and Marie keep their attraction under wraps and try to dissuade themselves from falling for the other, but it's apparently too late for that.
Dan in Real Life offers up some comedy, some pathos, and a lot of sweetness but it never gets cloying. It's smartly written and very well acted and the characters are believable, even if the scenario is a bit contrived (but it's done much, much better than the mixed-up romance of Luke Wilson and Sarah Jessica Parker in The Family Stone).
After Foxcatcher and other more-serious-than-funny roles, Carrell, it's now known, can play it straight as well as funny, but this movie came at the height of The Office, when people maybe weren't yet willing to see "Michael Scott" be semi-serious and sensitive. We know better now.