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Dan In Real Life (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 26 October 2007
There’s nothing much new in “Dan in Real Life,” but director Peter Hedges (who co-scripted with Pierce Gardner) marshals the elements of movie making so well—including what seems to be a hand-picked cast—that it’s easily one of the most charming and likeable movies of the year. It stumbles a bit here and there, but only a little. Mostly, it’s warm, funny, well-observed and very entertaining. It’s one more sure step in Steve Carell’s journey toward leading-man status (certainly more deft and welcome than “Evan Almighty”).

Carell is Dan Burns, a widower who writes an amusing advice column, “Dan in Real Life.” He has three daughters, Jane (Alison Pill), the eldest, who’s eager to start her own life and wants to begin by driving, Cara (Brittany Robertson), who’s just fallen deeply in love, convinced she’s the first person to feel such intense passion, and the youngest, Lilly (Marlene Lawston), who’s sweet-natured and a little secretive around her father.

Dan’s doing the best he can, but in the eloquent opening shot—he awakes in bed, sighing once again to see the opposite side covered with magazines rather than his wife—we can see that he hasn’t successfully made the transition from grief to adjustment. Even so, he packs up the daughters for the family trip to Rhode Island. His mother (Dianne Wiest) and father (John Mahoney) annually welcome a large clan of their children and their spouses; they gather in what seems to be the family home, a large, utilitarian but handsome old wooden structure near a bay. We’re tossed into the midst of this noisy, friendly group, and few viewers will be able to satisfactorily sort out brothers and sisters from spouses, or identify which kid is whose offspring. Instead of a weakness, it’s a strength in terms of realism—anyone who’s accustomed to such big family gatherings is well aware it’s not always easy to identify everyone, even when you’re related to them.

His family is well aware that Dan is still mourning the loss of his wife, and his mother hustles him out of the house the moment he arrives. He stops at what’s obviously a favorite haunt, a rambling bookstore on a dock. There, he encounters Marine (Juliette Binoche), by helping her pick out some books despite her earnestly confused desires. He’s immediately attracted to her, and she to him. It’s a fairly obvious and routine meet-cute scene, but the warmth and humor of Carell and Binoche lift the film buoyantly. They part, semi-sure they’ll never see each other again.

But—and of course there’s a “but”—when Dan finally returns to his parents’ house, his introduced to the girlfriend of his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook)—and of course, it’s Marie. Now what? Mitch has had many girlfriends over the years; he’s boisterous, almost puppyish, around Marie, offering romantic phrases like “an angel has just entered the room.” Neither Dan nor Marie want to scuttle Mitch’s boat; unsure about what to do, they pretend never to have met.
The trouble is that right in front of everyone, though only one person notices, they continue to fall in love. Dan makes wisecracks about the number of Mitch’s girlfriends, and hates himself for it. When his parents set Dan up on a double date with Marie and Mitch, his date is some he’s known since childhood, Ruthie Draper, so homely as a kid she was called Pig Face (before she arrives, Mitch and the family kids make up a song about her, a sequence that seems natural). But now she’s a gorgeous, sexy and rich plastic surgeon; she has a few issues, but she and Dan really are drawn to one another. In an unusual touch for this kind of movie, now it’s Marie’s turn to be petulant. Binoche is especially charming in these scenes.

Dan is also supposed to meet some representatives of a major newspaper syndicate, who may want to take on his column, but this idea is dealt with in a cursory, uninvolving fashion—it’s held back to nearly the end, and we finally learn what happened to Dan and his column only in a brief voiceover (of Dan reading one of his columns).

This is Carell’s first role in which he’s basically just an ordinary guy, not a goofball, not a slightly dimwitted office boss, not a 40-year-old virgin. It may take a moment to shift gears as you realize that this time, his character isn’t faking sincerity, he IS sincere. Dan is plunked into the middle of what has probably been one of the highlights of his year—his family reunion—but it now has an extra dimension, Marie and his feelings for her, that he’s not emotionally equipped to deal with. He’s sad while everyone else, often including Marie, is happy.

Director/co-writer Hedges uses some relatively routine family-comedy elements (the still-clad Dan is trapped in a shower with Marie, unable to reveal himself), the teenage daughter caught up in her own passion, etc. And toward the end, one bit (Lilly’s desire to show her father something she’s made for him) is contrived and strained—but it’s one of the few missteps in the movie. Other ideas, such as Mitch, a physical therapist, leading his whole family in calisthenics, may be familiar but the tone here is very different. Mitch isn’t a blowhard jock, he’s just enthusiastic, a little apprehensive about his relationship with Marie. Cook is especially good here, though the wrapup of his side of the story is obvious and clunkily brief.

The dialogue is often well above average. When, in an early scene, Dan threatens to ground Cara for a month, she’s outraged: “A month!? That’s worse than forever!” Later, her boyfriend—who’s a perfectly good kid—shows up at the family compound and is promptly sent away by Dan. Cara runs after his car, breaking down in tears, consoled by Jane, but she has enough energy to shriek at her father “You’re a murderer of love!” Somewhere along the line, someone says “Love isn’t a feeling, it’s an ability,” a genuinely new truism.

Sondre Lerche (male) wrote and sings a number of pretty good background songs, and appears in person under the end credits, but the sound mix is too cautious—we can only rarely make out the song lyrics. However, this is still a welcome touch—new songs written directly for the movie. This hasn’t been done this extensively in some time.

The entire cast is outstanding, even those characters/family members who only have a brief moment or two. All characters are realistic and believable, too—no one is here just to provide a too-knowing wisecrack, to have a silly slapstick scene, to be the equivalent of a heavy. Hedges is excellent with the kids; the girl in the “pig face” song is so delightfully real that you wonder if Hedges shot the rehearsal. He captures the sense of warm-hearted chaos that often marks family reunions; these people all like each other, and greatly enjoy these few days of togetherness, even if one or two (Dan, Marie, Cara) are undergoing some emotional turmoil.

The movie really isn’t about the large family, it’s about Dan and his discovering he can love again, but the background is more than usually important to the foreground story, while Carell’s slightly cranky winsomeness ties it all together. This side of the Atlantic hasn’t seen Juliette Binoche in many comedies, and it is true that she’s not doing a standard comic performance here, either—her Marie is always real, always believable, even when, very embarrassed, she finds herself naked in a shower with clothed Dan, unable to do anything about it. Their performances are very well matched; their characters are very likeable—but then so is Mitch. Marie has to make a real choice, not one forced on her by the requirements of the plot, and that increases the sometimes wobbly realism of the whole affair.

“Dan in Real Life” isn’t the surprise “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was, because the material is more familiar. But director Hedges and his exceptional cast, particularly the two leads, make this warm-hearted romantic comedy very welcome.

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