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DAD - **** - Jack Lemmon, Ted Danson, Olympia Dukakis, Kathy Baker; rated PG (profanity); Century 5 Theaters, Cineplex Odeon Crossroads and Holladay Center Cinemas, Mann 6 Plaza Theaters.

When James L. Brooks wrote and directed "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" he was considered the exception to the rule - the TV talent ("Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") who, unlike many of his peers, moved into the theatrical venue with films that were more than merely big-screen sitcoms. They had depth and fine-tuned characters and stories with a point.Gary David Goldberg appears to be from the same school. His first feature film, "Dad," taken from the William Wharton novel, is a stunning debut, a movie with heart and a sense of reality that is rather unusual in modern movies. And this from the man who has been grinding out "Family Ties" episodes for more than a decade.

Maybe veterans of superior TV shows simply make superior movies.

Whatever, "Dad" is wonderful.

In a touch of unusual casting, Jack Lemmon has shaved his head, added makeup wrinkles to his face and developed a slow, stooped walk to effect a 78-year-old man, and he's utterly convincing. In fact, Lemmon immerses himself so deeply in the character that he loses all of the mannerisms you tend to associate with his usual screen persona. You will forget he's Jack Lemmon.

His character is a man who has forgotten how to live. He's been dominated by his wife (Olympia Dukakis, also aged for the role) so long that he has gotten slow and tired and has let her take over for him - she lays out his clothes, dictates how much butter and sugar he uses and even puts toothpaste on his toothbrush.

But when Dukakis has a heart attack and winds up in the hospital for a time, their son, Ted Danson, comes home to care for his father.

Danson is a preoccupied, divorced yuppie stockbroker with a son of his own he hasn't seen in years. He moves in with his father and finds that helping Dad become independent and active again brings a new sense of purpose to his own life. Lemmon, too, starts living again and eventually becomes a new man. And when Dukakis comes home she's not at all sure she likes the new man he's become.

There is much more plotwise to "Dad," but to give it away is to give away surprises. Though "Dad" follows a realistic course of true-life situations, the plotting here is not predictable. It's as unpredictable, in fact, as real life.

Like "Field of Dreams," "Dad" is about reconciling before it's too late - although in this case it happens before it's too late. And in addition to the relationship between Danson and Lemmon, it carries down to Danson and his own son, played by Ethan Hawke (of "Dead Poets Society").

There is a lot of deceptively simple wisdom in the dialogue, and mostly these family members talk like real people; the action is acutely low-key and behavioral. Goldberg has a marvelous ear for dialogue and a perceptive understanding of the way people react in unexpected ways during emotional crises. And he's not afraid to let the pacing slowly build to little moments that don't necessarily have a huge payoff.

There are a few small missteps along the way, moments that seem dramatically contrived, but it seems like carping to even bring them up since the majority of the film is so rich and fulfilling.

As for the performances, Lemmon is a marvel, and Danson a most appealing leading man, as he was in "Cousins" earlier this year. Dukakis and young Hawke are very good, as are Kathy Baker as Danson's sister and Kevin Spacey as her husband, each getting scenes that allow them to shine.

Rated PG for some profanity in a single scene, "Dad" is one of the most touching, heartfelt moviegoing experiences of this year and a wonderful endorsement of family love that makes this past summer's "Parenthood" seem quite artificial in comparison. - Christopher Hicks