Dan in Real Life
Directed by Peter Hedges
Starring Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook
It’s funny how differently things hit you on different days. Depending on the day or week you are having, a movie can either sit well with you or sit like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t really expecting too much from this film, but I guess a funny thing happened on the way to the forum…
Dan in Real Life is about single dad and popular family advice columnist Dan Burns (Steve Carell). He is doing his best to raise his three daughters; two teenagers and one almost there. They set out on a weekend away for an annual family get-together. The first morning, Dan goes into town and meets a woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a bookstore. We soon find out that Marie happens to be the girlfriend of Dan’s brother Mitch (Dane Cook), who was using the weekend as an outlet to let her meet the fam. The rest of the weekend is spent watching Dan and Marie share secret laughs and quick snippet meetings in this mansion of a house unbeknownst to the rest of the family, especially Mitch.
This movie shared with me a few surprises. The most obvious is my realization that Steve Carell is actually growing on me. This version of him anyway. Not The Office version or the Evan Almighty version. It even took me a while to like 40-Year-Old Virgin. But when I finally got there, what I liked most about it was the quieter moments. Those are the moments that define his ability beyond his manic episodes. Much like his Bruce Almighty co-star Jim Carrey before him, he is best when used with restraint. The quieter, more toned-down version suits him much more.
The scene where Dan and Marie meet in the bookstore is sweet and just real enough to set the right tone for the movie. Dan is gentle and clumsy and mildly awkward in his approach to Marie — much like you would expect a divorced father of three to be in that situation. I also liked the dynamic between Dan and all of his daughters. They each have their own conflict and he does what he can to balance them. There is a sweetness to his interaction with them, but also the sense that he is barely hanging on. As the weekend progresses and he continues to hide his affection for Marie and the tension mounts, Dan starts to melt down a bit. Oh, how glad am I that Carell chose to play this straight with a quiet desperation rather than resort to his old tricks and ham it up. His performance, and the movie, is better for it.
Another surprise is that Dane Cook did not actually ruin this movie. That’s not to say that he wasn’t mostly annoying (he was) and still the worst part of the movie (he was), but he wasn’t the distraction this time around that he is starting to be. Not for one second did I get on board with the idea that a Dane Cook/Juliette Binoche union was plausible. They looked awkward together and I didn’t buy it. Maybe that played into the movie’s hand a little more in getting me to buy/root for a Dan/Marie partnership. Or maybe not. I don’t think it really matters. The end result of the movie was never in question either way.
Yes, this movie had its share of problems. This essence of this movie was the very definition of formula, almost to a sitcom degree. But it didn’t matter. I liked the scenes where the family interacted. Sure they were quirky and odd and existed seemingly for the sake of being quirky and odd. But between the crossword puzzle competitions, group morning exercising, and even the creepy talent show, the tone it set for the film was cheesy yet moderately charming all at the same time. Dan in Real Life isn’t really about the family, or the overacted brother, or the formula the script adhered to. It’s about Dan and how he interacts with, and deals with, all the stress in his life. And even though the movie isn’t about all of those things, it is hard to ignore that they helped shape Dan into what he is now and how he chose to deal with everything happening around him.
Dan in Real Life is a sitcom formula stretched to feature length. In this case, it’s not a bad thing. The real strength of the film is Steve Carell and the realism he brought to the character. If he would have played this any other way, the film would have been a disaster. As it stands, flaws and all, this is a good, lighthearted movie that just sits right with you after you’ve seen it. Even if you won’t remember it two weeks from now.
And there’s the rub.
*** out of ****