Steve Carell may have suffered a major setback in his short movie career with the box-office failure of the biblically extravagant summer comedy Evan Almighty, but he’s sure to win back some audience goodwill with the more sensibly modest comedy Dan in Real Life. Director Peter Hedges’ second feature effort shares with his first, Pieces of April, a gentle sensibility and a keen appreciation for how families can be both comforting and utterly maddening. And at the center of it all is a vulnerable and understated performance by Carell which confirms that the former “Daily Show” madcap and current “Office” fool is also quite an accomplished movie actor.

Dan in Real Life starts a bit unpromisingly, as newspaper advice columnist Dan Burns (Carell), a widower with three rambunctious girls, takes off for his family’s annual reunion at the Rhode Island home of his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney). The complaints of Dan’s daughters—one begs permission to drive the car, another is suffering from puppy love—are straight out of a TV sitcom, and the Burns clan’s avid pursuit of family activities (touch football, skits, charades, etc.) has an oppressive Norman Rockwell vibe.

But then the premise kicks in. Wandering into the local bookshop, Dan encounters a beautiful woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche) who mistakes him for a shop clerk; Dan’s initial “sales pitch” evolves into a warm and intimate extended conversation. It’s an instant love connection, which Dan all but blurts out to his large family when he returns to the homestead. No sooner does Dan confess his feelings than his younger brother Mitch’s girlfriend arrives at the house—and of course it’s Marie. For the remainder of the film, Dan and Marie try to fight their mutual attraction or at least come to terms with their sudden feelings, amidst the uncomfortably close quarters of a house swarming with nosy people and one potential cuckold.

Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner have set up a classic screwball-comedy situation that can’t possibly end well, yet somehow does. The complications include the awkward sharing of a shower, and Dan being set up with a onetime neighborhood ugly duckling who has blossomed into a sexy surprise (Emily Blunt, in a delicious cameo), stirring up Marie’s instant jealousy. For his part, Mitch (Dane Cook) dotes on Marie, but it’s clear there’s something missing in the equation for this elegant and cultured woman.

The fine-featured Binoche and the not-quite-handsome Carell would seem to be an unlikely romantic pair, but their mutual intelligence compensates for their lack of physical chemistry. Carell, who also shone in Little Miss Sunshine, carries the film with his subtle portrayal of a man quietly suffering pangs of love in an environment where its expression would ignite a family crisis. Standup comic Cook is also surprisingly good as Dan’s unsuspecting rival, the better-looking brother who’s oblivious to the turmoil lurking underneath his seemingly ideal romance. Wiest and Mahoney are solid as Dan’s formidable parents, and Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson and Marlene Lawston are spirited as Dan’s demanding daughters.

A film of quiet but true pleasures, Dan in Real Life affirms that there’s a real movie career still ahead for Steve Carell.