Dan in Real Life

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/26/07 04:52:37

"Closer To Eric Rohmer Than Evan Almighty"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Thanks to a poster that features a bemused-looking Steve Carell with his head resting comfortably atop a plate of pancakes and commercials that feature him acting all panicky while teaching his daughter how to drive, you might expect “Dan In Real Life” to be just another mild family comedy in which Carell plays a doofy dad to a gaggle of well-scrubbed and highly precocious kids in a story where every line is a glib one-liner and where everyone gets a chance to dance wildly around the house while lip-synching to a familiar old Motown song. This might be the best way to get audiences into the theaters this weekend–at least those viewers who aren’t predisposed to attending the cinematic charnel house that is “Saw 4"–but it is hardly representative of the film and its decidedly low-key charms. Rather than being a brash family comedy, it comes across more like a quietly droll European comedy-drama than anything else–more Eric Rohmer and less “Evan Almighty.”

In the film, Carell plays Dan Burns, a newspaper advice columnist who seems to have all the answers for his readers but none for himself. Still reeling from the death of his wife four years earlier, Dan has essentially shut his life down in order to focus everything on keeping his three daughters safe from all of the dangers that he perceives in the world. This is a blessing that his daughters could easily live without–eldest Jane (Alison Pill) is annoyed that he will never allow her to drive the family car, even though she already has her license, middle child Cara (Brittany Robertson) is in the full hormonal thrall of first love and is enraged that he won’t let her spend time with her beloved and while the youngest, Lilly (Marlene Lawston), is still young enough to love everything that her daddy does without condition or hesitation, but old enough to sense that perhaps his parenting skills could use some adjusting. As the film opens, the four of them set off on a long road trip to Rhode Island for a family get-together and when they arrive, the tension is so thick that Dan’s mom (Dianne Weist) sends him out for a while so that they can all have a little space apart from each other.

While doing that, Dan happens into a bookstore and is immediately smitten by Marie (Juliette Binoche), another customer who mistakes him for a clerk and asks advice on what books she should get. There are immediate sparks between them and they spend the next couple of hours talking about their lives until Marie discovers that she is late and has to run. Although she admits that while she is in a new relationship with someone, she is intrigued by Dan and giver her his number so that he can give her a call later. As Michael Caine once said in a similar situation in “Hannah And Her Sisters,” Dan has his answer and is walking on air but it turns out to be too good to be true–the very moment that he confesses to his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), that he has just met this amazing woman, Mitch introduces him to his latest flame and, of course, it turns out to be Marie. Because Dan doesn’t want to hurt his brother, neither he nor Marie say anything to anyone about what has happened. However, because neither one can deny that there is an attraction between them, both he and Marie resort to clandestine flirting that becomes more and more obvious as the weekend progresses but as a result of being trapped in close quarters for so long with a person that they like but cannot have, both Dan and Marie find their true feelings emerging in ugly and unexpected ways. For Dan, the moment comes during dinner when he cruelly begins to list all of the other women that Mitch has been with over the years. For Marie, her jealousy arises when Dan is fixed up with a former childhood acquaintance who was once known as “Pigface” but has now blossomed into Ruthie Draper (Emily Blunt), the kind of smart, sexy, funny, altruistic and drop-dead gorgeous woman who could legitimately give the heretofore incomparable likes of Juliette Binoche a run for her money.

In ordinary circumstances, a story along these lines would play out in one of two ways–either as a randy bedroom farce with a lot of slamming doors and close calls or a grim drama about lust and betrayal in which no one goes home happy in the end. Instead, co-writer/director Peter Hedges (in his first film since the 2003 indie hit “Pieces of April”) takes a more low-key and realistic approach that turns out to be surprisingly effective. Instead of making things simple by making Dan and Marie into near-saints and Mitch into some kind of depraved pig, the film allows them all to be complicated types who are neither all good or all bad–each one has their moments to shine as well as their moments of shame. It also doesn’t try to make things wackier by leaving the rest of the characters completely oblivious to what is going on between Dan and Marie–even though they may not know the actual specifics, they do pick up on the unusual vibes between the two of them and comment on them directly instead of simply pretending that nothing is happening. I also liked how the Ruthie Draper character was handled as well. When the other woman is brought into a story like this, she usually turns out to have some kind of glaring flaw that will make it easy for our hero to get rid of her without losing any audience sympathy but this screenplay doesn’t offer that easy out–it makes her into the kind of character that virtually anyone, even one besotted with his brother’s girlfriend, would crawl across broken glass to be with for even a moment.

Unlike a lot of comic actors out there these days, what makes Steve Carell such an interesting performer is the vulnerability that he manages to display in even the wackiest surroundings–what saves his character on “The Office” from coming across as nothing more than a clueless idiot is the way that virtually all of his actions spring forth from a desperate need to be liked. Here, he brings that vulnerability into play as Dan and his performance here is funny, touching and, to these eyes, far more impressive than his work in the wildly overrated “Little Miss Sunshine.” And while the pairing may sound too bizarre for words, he and Juliette Binoche strike genuine sparks in their scenes together and come off as a winning and highly likable screen couple whose future we actually have a genuine rooting interest in. As for Dane Cook, the unknowing third part of this romantic triangle, even he manages to dial down the obnoxiousness enough to suggest that he might be able to pull off the acting thing after all if he allows himself to gravitate towards material with a little more gravitas than the likes of “Good Luck Chuck.”

“Dan In Real Life” is far from being a flawless work by any means–a running gag involving repeated encounters with a traffic cop quickly grows tedious, the Ruthie Draper character, once introduced and established, then mystifyingly disappears for a long stretch of time, the ending is a little too pat for its own good and while you can understand why Mitch (or anyone else) would be head over heels for Marie, you never quite sense what it is that she sees in him. In a film that celebrates the messiness of life and lover, though, these bumps didn’t really bother me that much (okay-maybe the Ruthie Draper one did a little since I am a firm believer that if you are smart and tasteful enough to introduce the likes of Emily Blunt, who is fast becoming this column’s new crush object, into the proceedings, you keep her on hand for more than just a few minutes) and in a way, they even lend an extra note of reality to the proceedings. While the film may not be a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it is a charming, witty and fairly lovable work of low-key filmmaking, even though the ads would have you believe otherwise.

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