Seeing the name of Iowa writer Peter Hedges on a movie (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, Pieces of April) means you're in for a unique blend of humor and heartbreak, with the bruising and healing powers of family right at the core. April in 2003 repped an auspicious directing debut for Hedges, which he now follows with the blissfully funny and touching Dan in Real Life, the real thing in romantic comedy in that its characters manage to be romantic, hilarious and recognizably human at the same time. Think that's easy? Try seeing yourself in the misogynist muck of The Heartbreak Kid. As Dan Burns, a widower with three daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson and Marlene Lawston), Steve Carell performs comic wonders, finding the sting in the wryest of quips. Dan writes a family-advice column filled with the common sense he lacks himself. In the four years since his wife died, Dan's been laying down rigid rules for his girls and dragging his ass about relationships. Then, out of the blue, in a bookstore, he meets a woman (the bracingly lovely Juliette Binoche) who makes him laugh and, better yet, makes him want to make her laugh. Hedges, who co-wrote with Pierce Gardner, directs with unforced exuberance. Outside the safety zone of farce provided by The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Office, Carell shows a whole new side to his talents. Even in the brief bookstore encounter, he makes you feel Dan's longing. You also feel his horror when Dan arrives at the Rhode Island home of his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) to find his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) ready to introduce his new love. Right, she's Marie, from the bookstore. OK, the plot tickles sitcom, but the film is a winner because Carell and Binoche follow Hedges' lead and keep it real. Sharing their company really is a pleasure.