Dan in Real Life
Director : Peter Hedges
Screenplay : Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
The title of Dan in Real Life is drawn from the fictional newspaper column written by Dan Burns (Steve Carell), a widowed father of three precocious daughters. His is one of those advice columns in which struggling people write in to someone they've never met and receive vague advice on how to be a better person, a better spouse, a better parent, etc. This would seem to suggest that the film is going to be about how the constant advice-giver discovers that he is just as flawed as everyone else and learns a lesson, rather than dispensing one. And, to a certain extent, this is true. However, if that had been the film's main thrust, it would have been a less enjoyable concept comedy built entirely around a premise, rather than characters. Dan in Real Life is better than that because cowriter/director Peter Hedges makes sure that his film is about a widower named Dan Burns, not a newspaper columnist.
Dan and his three daughters--car-happy 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), lovestruck 14-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson), and amiable 9-year-old Lilly (Marlene Lawston)--pile into his station wagon and head out for the seaside home of Dan's parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest), where the entire Burns family has congregated for the holidays. The first morning Dan goes out to buy a newspaper and ends up sharing the morning with a woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche), who is the first person to catch his eye since his wife died four years earlier. When he returns to tell the family that he has met “someone,” he is surprised to discover that the “someone” is already there. It turns out that Marie is the new girlfriend of Dan's younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook), who has until now been a player but now appears to be genuinely in love with her. Thus, Dan is faced with the horror of spending the holidays faced not only with his own loneliness (everyone else in the family is happily married), but knowing that his first chance at redemptive love is spending time in the arms of his lothario sibling.
Hedges, whose directorial debut was 2003's Pieces of April, another family-coming-together dramedy, has a decidedly mainstream sensibility that is tinged with a slight edge of spirited darkness. Dan in Real Life is designed through and through to be a “feel-good movie,” but not since Woody Allen has a filmmaker made a romance feel so decidedly miserable for so long (albeit without Allen's trademark banter and ironic commentary). Dan in Real Life is surprisingly sad even when it's funny because Hedges never lets us forget how alone Dan feels. Anyone who has ever been surrounded by loving family, yet still felt like the only human being on the planet will immediately identify with his emotional predicament. Hedges and coscreenwriter Pierce Gardner are also quite adept at depicting the challenges of parenting, especially three girls who are all at different places in life (Dan's attempts to keep Cara away from the professed love of her life culminates in the hilarious accusation that he is a “murderer of love”).
Parts of Dan in Real Life feel a little too broad, such as the scene in which Dan finds himself trapped in a shower with Marie while June rambles on about her problems or the scene in which Dan is set up on a blind date with a woman who was described as “Pig Face” when she was a girl but is now (surprise!) a beautiful and successful plastic surgeon played by Emily Blunt. However, Steve Carell's performance as Dan keeps the film as a whole grounded, even when it starts feeling a little creaky and predictable. Aside from misguided detours like last summer's Evan Almighty (2007), Carell has continued to grow and mature as an actor. Here he brings much of the despondency that characterized his performance in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) without the self-consciously showy gloom. We sense that Dan used to be a hilarious guy, and just beneath the surface of his sadness that person is trying to break free. Carell's adeptness at being awkward is used well, even as it masks a deeper well of emotions that makes Dan in Real Life more true to its title than expected.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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