Dan in Real Life
Intimate family comedy finds the realism in romance
By Devin D. O’Leary
Dan in Real Life
Directed by Peter Hedges
Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook
Steve Carell almost (almost, mind you) makes up for Evan Almighty with his latest film, a low-key romantic comedy so darn likable not even the presence of Dane Cook can ruin it. In fact, simply labeling it a “romantic comedy” is a bit of an insult. Though the film is both romantic and comedic, viewers will have a hard time getting simple genre labels to stick.
The film is written and directed by Peter Hedges (screenwriter of About a Boy and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?[xurl] and writer/director of the 2003 Oscar-nominated indie Pieces of April) and functions as a highly credible follow-up to Carell’s star-making turn in last summer’s indie smash Little Miss Sunshine.
Carell, not quite as dark and depressed as he was in Sunshine, stars as Dan Burns, a long-recovering widower trying to raise three young daughters on his own. Dan makes a living writing a newspaper advice column, a job for which he seems singularly unqualified. Sure, he’s good at dispensing sage advice on parenting, but he’s not all that hot on following it. In the four years since his wife’s death, he’s become morose, isolated and increasingly overprotective of his daughters.
Somewhat reluctantly, Dan accepts an early fall invitation for a family vacation/reunion on Rhode Island. Every year, Dan’s family gathers to help Nana and Poppy Burns (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) close up their sizable beachside cabin for the winter. There’s also some hope that tossing Dan amid a dozen or so brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews will jar him out of his funk.
Surprisingly, it works. Dispatched from the house to pick up a Sunday newspaper, Dan crosses paths with Marie (Juliette Binoche, still lovely some 20 years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being), an out-of-towner haunting the local book shop. Despite his awkwardness, Dan makes an impression on the smart, attractive and charismatic gal. They chat over coffee and he even manages to walk away with her phone number. Perhaps things are looking up for old Dan.
Unfortunately, Dan soon learns how cruel his life really is. Later that afternoon, he discovers that Marie is the new girlfriend of his yoga-instructing brother Mitch (the aforementioned Dane Cook). Now Dan’s stuck at the cabin for an entire week, uncomfortably socializing with the happy couple. This drives him into an even worse state of mind, sulking, sleeping late and generally annoying his relatives.
What will strike viewers most immediately about Dan in Real Life is the level of authenticity it strives for. Heck, it’s right there in the title. Although it is often quite funny, there are no punch lines, no setups, no out-and-out gags that require you to set aside reality for the sake of a laugh. The characters themselves are all entirely believable. The script could easily have provided Dan with a dozen wacky, dysfunctional stereotypes with which to interact: the drunken uncle, the oversexed grandfather, the slutty sister, the effeminate brother who doesn’t know he’s gay even though everybody else does. Instead, everyone in the Burns family seems pleasant, genial and completely normal--just the sort of family you’d like to hang out with for a week or so. It doesn’t hurt that the veteran actors scattered throughout the cast all appear quite comfortable with the characters they’re playing. (Perhaps the key to making Cook tolerable is to cast him in roles that don’t require him to be funny.)
The emotions expressed here are real, honest and (most likely) familiar. Even the romance feels natural and never forced. No “big secret” to be exposed here. No tearful public reunion onboard the Goodyear blimp. Things eventually head toward the sort of happy wrap-up most audiences expect, but the path there is never easy or at all preordained. Dan and Marie are in an uncomfortable situation, and the film never glosses that over. Instead, it finds heartfelt humor and drama by quietly observing the awkward, discomfiting and deeply human interaction of its likable yet flawed characters.
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