Dan in Real Life (2007) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for innuendo and language
Running time: 99 min.

Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney, Norbert Leo Butz, Emily Blunt, Amy Ryan, Jessica Hecht
Director: Peter Hedges
Screenplay: Pierce Gardner, Peter Hedges

Review published October 27, 2007

A charming and funny romantic comedy, Steve Carell (Evan Almighty, Little Miss Sunshine) and the rest of the ensemble cast imbue their characters with the requisite energy and quirks necessary to overcome a major sitcom premise and craft one of the best examples in the genre this year.  Unlike other Carell comedies, Dan in Real Life doesn't go for the big laughs that you might be expecting, although there are certainly enough choice ones to have many smiling throughout, and enough emotional elements to have some eyes mist up from time to time.  It may not be wacky and unpredictable, but it is delightful and surprisingly touching. 

Peter Hedges, who scored with a similar hit about a dysfunctional family who find unity through a tragedy in Pieces of April continues to generate warmth and laughs by creating three-dimensional characters that, like most families, are annoying but loving at the same time.  Although there is a tendency for the characters to be rather one-note, at least the notes played together make for some interesting music, and some choice gags throughout. 

The premise of the film is a bit farfetched, as it has the titular longsuffering widower and father of three precocious girls traveling to see his family out in rural Rhode Island, where he meets a beautiful woman (Binoche, Paris I Love You) while getting away from the group for a bit.  The two find an instant chemistry, and talk for hours, but at no point does it ever come up as to why she is there and who she is visiting.  The two exchange numbers, perhaps a sign that they may get to know more, but a major snag to their plans arises.  Turns out the woman is Marie, the new girlfriend of Dan's brother Mitch (Cook, Good Luck Chuck), and the one that Mitch thinks might finally be the keeper.  From then on, Dan can do nothing but bemoan the fact that the only woman that he has ever felt anything for since the death of his wife is every bit as wonderful as he thought she would be, and while she seems to show signs of feeling the same, he can't bear to mess things up for Mitch. 

Although I did mention that the film doesn't go for big laughs, once you come to like the characters, you'll laugh at the folly of their situations just as you would members of your own family.  Scenes like Dan inadvertently stuck in the shower trying to avoid an unseemly rendezvous with Marie when his daughter (Pill, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) walks in could have been phony and cheap in any other comedy, but here, it works, primarily because we believe these characters might actually do something that impulsive and silly.  The angle that has Dan on the verge of a possible syndication deal with his advice column on parenting is supposed to make certain elements of the film ironic, but it is mostly needless and bears little thematic or comedic fruit.  Thankfully, the film's plot never quite hinges on this development, which is the right move from a narrative standpoint. 

The casting is quite good all around, even landing Dane Cook in a rare role he actually is suited for.  The kids are cute and funny without being completely overbearing, while Dan's parents are a mix of petty and loving, just like many of us have in our own lives.  Carell is very appealing here, and Binoche is perfectly cast as the woman attractive and alluring enough to make a struggling widower think there may be another chance to find the woman of his dreams, and to realize it after only one conversation.  Particularly strong is the melancholy (but optimistic) music played throughout by Sondre Lerche, which enhances the bittersweet mood of the scenes immensely.  Beautiful shots of the Rhode Island landscape show the appeal of the environs, as well as the innocence and sadness of a town not quite in step with society, also echoing Dan's inability to get up to speed in his own life.

There are some predictable moments, such as Dan's date with an ugly duckling who has turned into a beautiful swan, his daughter's first big drive, and a few other examples, but Dan in Real Life always seems to know just the right ways to overcome inherent story clichés with surprising grace and affability.  Hedges isn't afraid to rely on crutches from time to time, provided he can do them without losing the spontaneity of the characters and their interactions when these contrived events eventually occur.  It's a formula that works.

While Dan in Real Life may not exactly resemble real life itself, for a romantic comedy, it manages to still teach valuable life lessons about never closing off that part of you that is willing to accept love, regardless of the pain of your loss of it.  The lesson also applies to the movie, as the more you're willing to accept imperfections and roll with whatever comes your way, the more chance you'll have of being truly happy with the outcome.  Just like the character of Dan himself, Dan in Real Life would be maddeningly annoying with its adherence to routine and repetitive tendencies, but once you scratch the surface, you realize there is a lot of life, and a lot to love, underneath.

Qwipster's rating:

©2007 Vince Leo