© 2007 Ray Wong
Marketed as a romantic comedy starring the often-hilarious Steve Carell, Dan in Real Life is actually a film about family. OK, it is a comedy; but not the laugh-out-loud slapsticks you would expect from Carell.
Widowed with three young daughters, Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist still mourning for his wife after four years. Beside his job and his children, Dan doesn't really have a life. While on his annual family vacation at his parents' house in New England, Dan meets the woman of his dream. Marie (Juliette Binoche) is everything he could dream of: beautiful, kind, smart, with a great sense of humor. Suddenly Dan is giggling like a small boy and can't help babbling about Marie.
That is until he finds out Marie is his brother's girlfriend, and she was on her way to join the family for the weekend when Dan and she met. Awkward. Dan tries to force himself to forget about Marie but everywhere he turns, there she is, and his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) keeps reminding Dan how lucky he is and what a fabulous catch Marie is. To complicate matters, Marie is not necessarily saying "no, please keep your distance." Driven by jealousy and self-pity, Dan acts out his frustration like a 15-year-old until his family -- not knowing dilemma -- steps in to interfere.
Steve Carell (Evan Almighty) can be inconsistent. He was extremely funny in supporting roles and as Michael Scott in the hit show The Office, but he was flat in Evan Almighty. However, Carell is able to tap into his psychosis as well as his boy-man sensitivity to bring Dan Burns to life. Strangely, Carell shows great dramatic chops in a comedic role. There are key scenes in which his performance is pitch perfect and touching.
Juliette Binoche (Paris, je t'aime) is always lovely and interesting. As Dan's object of affection, however, her character seems somewhat inconsistent and we can't really tell how she feels until later in the film. Granted, the story is mostly told from Dan's perspective but still, her ambiguity keeps the audiences at a distance. She is like this image of perfection but doesn't quite seem real. Dane Cook (Good Luck Chuck) plays a lovable schmuck with ease, but his acting skills are rather lacking, especially in the company of a great cast.
As Dan's three daughters, Alison Pill (Dear Wendy), Brittany Robertson (Frank), and especially Marlene Lawston (Flight Plan) are adorable -- they have good chemistry with their onscreen dad. Dianne Wiest (Dedication) and John Mahoney (Frasier) are comforting as Dan's laid back but concerned parents. Finally, Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) turns in a remarkably fun and sexy performance as Dan's childhood friend, Ruthie, albeit her limited screen time.
The screenplay by writer-director Peter Hedges (Pieces of Apple) and Pierce Gardner (Lost Soul) follows a conventional family vacation/romantic comedy routine. The set up is a bit contrived: boy meets girl cute and then boy loses girl quickly. The plot seems conventional as well, and predictable. Still, their strength is in the dialogue; there are some really sharp-witted lines and gut-busting situations. Despite certain slapstick moments, Hedges and Gardner manage to keep the comedy down to Earth and real. The story has a great sense of humor without resorting to extreme hilarity, and that sets the tone of the film nicely.
Those who expect to see Steve Carell doing his Michael Scott schticks or following the comedy footsteps of stars such as Jim Carrey or Will Farrell would be disappointed. However, unlike Evan Almighty, which basically neutered the actor from the first scene, Dan in Real Life gives him a chance to showcase his dramatic skills. There are of course funny moments, but it is the emotionally charged scenes that set Steve Carell apart. He has a way to really touch your heart with a simple look and a lopsided smirk.
Peter Hedges does a fine job letting his star shine. The film has a gentle and calm feel to it and that's such a great juxtaposition to Dan's emotional turmoil. Hedges keeps the pace brisk, although there are a few dull moments. The soundtrack is uninspired -- mostly recycled songs and the score is negligible. Still, Dan in Real Life is a sweet, humorous look at family and love and, most important, self-worth. It's an amusing feel-good movie to which we can all relate in our own real lives.
Stars: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney, Emily Blunt
Director: Peter Hedges
Writer: Peter Hedges, Pierce Gardner
Distributor: Buena Vista/Touchstone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some innuendo
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.5 out of 10