(CNN) -- So far as I can see, Steve Carell is a rather unremarkable fellow -- which makes him quite an unusual movie star.
Steve Carell believes he has found true love with Juliette Binoche in "Dan in Real Life."
He's short and slight and a square. Save for the Old Testament look he tried on in "Evan Almighty," he's maintained the same boring businessman haircut for as long as he's been in the public eye (and well before that, I'll bet).
He's not a prankster like Jim Carrey or a crack-up like Robin Williams; he's more the Jack Lemmon type (it's easy to imagine him in a remake of "The Apartment"). His awkward, inadequate ordinariness is his selling point. He's the fool who suffers frustration, humiliation and rejection on our behalf, and the joke is always on him.
If Carell looked swamped in "Evan Almighty," he's firmly back in his comfort zone in "Dan in Real Life." This is his most assured and rounded performance to date.
In the opening few minutes we watch Dan dispensing sage parenting tips in print -- the movie's title is also the name of his advice column -- and keeping a too-tight rein on his three growing daughters. A widower, he's working his socks off to keep it all together.
It sounds like the setup for a sitcom, but never mind. No sooner has Dan driven the kids to Poppy and Nana's house for the annual family get-together in off-season Rhode Island than he's meeting cute with Juliette Binoche in a secondhand bookstore.
Binoche in a secondhand bookstore: that nails the audience for Peter Hedges' movie right there. This is not Judd Apatow raunch we're talking about. Hedges had a minor Sundance hit with "Pieces of April" some years ago, and is best remembered for his screenplay "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Like those films, "Dan in Real Life" coats melancholy observation in gentle character comedy and a soupcon of farce.
Binoche -- Marie, naturellement -- is "the One." Or in Dan's case, I guess, the "second One." He feels it, and even though she's barely gotten a word in edgewise, we're given to understand she feels it too.
Unfortunately, she has a boyfriend. And wouldn't you know -- he turns out to be Dan's younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook), a reformed skirt-chaser who announces himself besotted. Too decent do the dirty on his own kin, Dan tries to keep his infatuation to himself. The results are every bit as rueful as you would hope.
Indeed, Dan scarcely makes a good decision in the entire movie. He's rude and ridiculous and miserable. But you have to feel for the guy. He's in love.
Anyway, what's the alternative? Root for Dane Cook? I don't think so, not even when he's underplaying as sweetly as he does here. Cook and Binoche -- that's like a Camembert and peanut butter sandwich. Some things just aren't meant to be.
A braver movie might have scrapped the meet-cute (easily the silliest and least convincing scene in the picture) and allowed Marie and Dan to fall in love with full knowledge of their impossible situation. Binoche did something equally untoward in Louis Malle's "Damage" -- not a laugh riot, admittedly.
But if Hedges is pulling his punches just a little, he's only prepared to flirt with the farcical aspects of Dan's predicament without sacrificing the character's credibility. It's Dan's -- that is, Carell's -- forlorn attempt to keep some modicum of self-respect that's so endearing.
There's enough going on between Carell and Binoche -- she's a deliciously expressive actress -- that the film works as a mature romance and not just as another formulaic comedy. This time, the last laugh goes to Mr. Carell. And well deserved, too.
"Dan in Real Life" is rated PG-13 and runs 98 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here. E-mail to a friend