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Dan in Real Life (2007)

| November 3, 2007 | 0 Comments

I have come to anticipate the moment when Steve Carrell walks into a room. He has that kind of presence where he can be funny doing just about anything. It is the kind of presence that use to be occupied by Peter Sellers or Dudley Moore because you almost know that he will end up making you laugh. Lately, Carrell has successfully cornered the market on playing dimwits in movies like “Get Smart” and “Dinner for Schmucks”. He is an expert at knowing how to play stupid but he doesn’t have to knock things over to make it happen.

Yet, in the comedy Dan in Real Life, I saw a new side to him. Here is a tender romantic comedy that calms down his usual manic energy and allows him to play a bittersweet character who is charming and soulful without seeming cloying. He plays Dan Burns, an advice columnist (the title is the name of his column) who is raising three daughters by himself after the death of his wife four years earlier. He doesn’t know much about being an authority figure and his daughters – who are moving quickly into their teen years – love and respect him without completely taking him seriously.

A bit of sunshine falls into Dan’s weary heart one day while visiting a bookshop. He meets a woman named Marie (Juliet Binoche). She’s beautiful, smart, funny and seems to connect with him right away. They sit for an afternoon and have a conversation that could go on and on. Dan is convinced that he has found the great love of his life and he may be right.

Thanksgiving draws close, and Dan takes the girls to his mother and father’s beach house in Rhode Island. They are great parents, the kinds of kindly old retirees who live on the beach and bake all day. The fact that they are played by John Mahoney and Diane Weist makes us comfortable with them right away. Amid the large family gathering comes brother Mitch (Dane Cook) and his new girlfriend . . . Marie.

That complication might make for your standard bonehead comedy, but director Peter Hedges is much smarter than that. Obviously, Dan’s heart is crushed, but the movie plays the situation out of reality, not contrivance. This is one of those movies that is difficult to delve into without giving too much away, except to say that what happens in the film’s third act, I didn’t expect.

What I also didn’t expect was how genuine the characters are with each other. Most movies about family gatherings feature hateful comments and verbal floor fights. However, this family is different. You can sense that they love each other and are happy to be together for the holiday. How they deal with the complication between Mitch and Dan and Marie is never played for gags. There’s a lot of understanding and love there.

Most of what works in Dan in Real Life comes from Steve Carrell who shows his dramatic side here amid the comedy. Dan is still affected by his wife’s death and that shows in the center of his face. When he meets Marie, his eyes light up and so does his spirit. He reminded me a bit here of Jack Lemmon, playing a sad sack who is humorous about his own shortcomings and destroyed by the notion that something perfect has entered his life and then seems to have blown away in the wind.

The other key casting is by Juliette Binoche, the luminous French actress who won and Oscar for “The English Patient” and whose 1994 drama “Blue” is one of my favorite films of all time. She is best at playing disaffected women who are wounded beyond repair. Here she plays Marie as a tenderhearted woman, smart and beautiful who loves Dan, but is with Mitch for reasons we don’t expect. Her motivations are driven organically and not from the manipulations of the screenplay.

“Dan in Real Life” is a breath of fresh air. It is the kind of bittersweet comedy that Hollywood butchers all the time with pratfalls and stupid one-liners. That is absent here. Director Peter Hedges knows his characters and doesn’t let them float away into a sea of clichĂ©. He keeps them close to the chest and makes them very real. This movie was a breath of fresh air.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2007) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy, Drama
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