Steve Carell is obviously an incredibly funny guy, but can we take a second to note how diverse he is? Compare the hilarious dimness of his character in Anchorman to his sweetly naïve one in The 40-Year Old Virgin to his lovelorn/depressed one in Little Miss Sunshine to his arrogantly clueless Michael Scott on “The Office.” Now that, my friends, is range! Carell shows yet another side of his talents with Dan in Real Life, the romantic comedy in a minor key from writer/director Peter Hedges, whose Pieces of April shares this one’s low-key sensibility.
Carell plays Dan Burns, a widowed newspaper columnist who dispenses child-rearing advice. At home, he tries to be a good father to his three daughters, but they sometimes feel that perhaps he’s trying a little too hard. (One he won’t let date, another he won’t let drive.) Dan packs the girls in the car and heads for his family’s cabin in Rhode Island for a long weekend get-together with his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest), his brother Mitch (Dane Cook), and other siblings, spouses, and children.
While running an errand, Dan walks into a used bookstore and has a “meet cute” with Marie (Juliette Binoche). They go for coffee and end up talking forever. Both feel a clear connection to one another – perhaps even love at first meeting – but Marie is in a new relationship with another guy and chooses not to pursue it with Dan. Turns out the new guy is none other than Mitch, and Marie has been invited to spend the weekend with the family. The following three days present a unique challenge, as Dan and Marie continue to feel strongly attracted to one another yet don’t feel as though they can act upon that feeling. Meanwhile, in a very funny subplot, Dan’s parents attempt to fix him up on a blind date with the daughter (Emily Blunt) of some old friends.
Admittedly, Dan in Real Life has moments where it feels a little too precious. The story has to create a way for Dan not to realize that Marie is his brother’s girlfriend until the “right” moment (it involves Mitch calling her a different name), and a scene where the adults in the family play “hide and seek” is just a bit hard to swallow. A few other scattered moments have this same kind of thin feel.
Yet as a whole, the movie succeeds very well. Much of the credit has to go to Hedges’ screenplay, which blends observant dialogue with strong characterization. Hedges is more interested in the tiny moments than in the big ones; that, by nature, causes the film to concentrate more on the relationships between the people than on the kind of grand contrivances that often fuel romantic comedies. We buy into the idea of this guy falling in love with his brother’s girlfriend and being torn between his desire to be with her and his desire to avoid hurting him. There are also some particularly nice scenes between Dan and his daughters, which have a ring of truth.
Dan in Real Life proves that unusual casting can also create some magic. The idea of pairing Steve Carell with French Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche as romantic partners was enough to make me say huh? when I first heard about it. Oddly enough, it works. Because they don’t automatically seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly (or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), we watch the interaction between them more closely and are increasingly drawn into it. Combine that with stand-up comedian Dane Cook turning in an effective, uncharacteristically muted supporting performance, and you have something that is compulsively watchable.
It should be noted that the movie is not exactly the wild and crazy comedy that the advertising makes it out to be. Sure, there are laughs (some of them quite big), but there are also more serious, thoughtful moments as well. Dan in Real Life qualifies as a “slice of life” movie – and that suits me just fine. Steve Carell is wonderful, the supporting cast shines, and the story is both sweet and identifiable. This is one of those “feel good” movies that really does make you feel good.
( out of four)
Dan in Real Life is rated PG-13 for some innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Dan in Real Life
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