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‘Dan in Real Life’? Not even close

Sappy comedy features cast which deserves better ... oh, and Dane Cook. By Alonso Duralde

Perhaps only historians of bad TV remember a short-lived 1979 series called “Hello, Larry,” which was basically built around one joke — the show was about a guy who hosted a radio advice show, but his own life was a mess. Get it? Isn’t that hilarious?

Well, no, not really. And that’s the premise that gets reworked in “Dan in Real Life,” an equally not-hilarious new film that squanders the talents of Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dianne Wiest and several other performers who aren’t remotely well-served by the material. These actors do, however, get to wear fetching fleece tops and nifty sweaters, since this is yet another one of those New England-set romantic comedies, complete with lighthouses and front yard touch football games.

Carell stars as Dan, who writes a newspaper column dispensing sage wisdom to parents and the lovelorn, even though he’s dealing with the usual issues you might expect from a widowed father of three adolescent girls. The oldest one (Allison Pill) has a new license and is itching to drive, while the middle daughter (Brittany Robertson) is bursting with hormones and convinced that she’s found true, deep love — after three days — with a boy at her school.

This irritating brood packs up the station wagon and drives north to Rhode Island, where Dan’s parents (Wiest and John Mahoney) are hosting their annual weekend with their extensive family before closing up their beachside house for the season.

One morning, Dan is sent off to buy the newspaper, and he crosses paths with the gorgeous Marie (Binoche). In a meet-cute staged with stunning awkwardness by director and co-writer Peter Hedges, Dan pretends to be an employee while Binoche rattles off an impossibly nuanced description of a book she’d like to have recommended to her.

This is Dan’s first flirtation since his wife died, but his euphoria is deflated when he returns to the house and discovers that Marie is dating his brother Mitch (Dane Cook), an aerobics instructor. This leads to Dan and Marie acting awkwardly around each other and dithering over whether or not they should be pursuing their obvious mutual interest.

“Dan in Real Life” perks up for a moment when Dan is set up on a blind date with a family friend (Emily Blunt) and Marie gets jealous, but this plot strand is quickly abandoned.

If we could remotely believe in any of these characters or situations, a cast this strong might have pulled this movie off. (Even Cook has now officially graduated to Not Particularly Good, up from So Awful You Want to Claw Your Eyes Out.) But Hedges’ script (with Pierce Gardner) and direction is almost entirely artificial and contrived.

As a writer, Hedges has shown a gift for this kind of material with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and the film version of “About a Boy.” Alas, his forays behind the camera with “Pieces of April” and now “Dan in Real Life” indicate he’s got Sundance intentions but a Hallmark Channel soul.