October 31, 2007

Movie Review: Dan in Real Life

This past summer Steve Carell starred in Evan Almighty. That film had its heart in the right place, but the execution was downright awful. When you consider how high the budget rose, it is hard not to look upon it as a failure, and by default perhaps think a little less of its star. Fortunately, Steve Carell is a talented actor who can get right back on the horse without missing a beat. Of course, he doesn't have much of a choice, nor does anyone have a choice for that matter. What does this have to do with Dan in Real Life? Well, not much. Suffice to say Carell moved on from that debacle, and onto a film that takes advantage of his everyman charms, low-key demeanor in a film that seems a bit light on substance but has an aura of a slightly out of alignment reality.

Dan Burns is an advice columnist writer who is doing the best he can as the widower father of three girls, 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson), and youngest, Lilly (Marlene Lawston). Each year the brood head out to Maine to meet up with the extended Burns clan at their parents cabin to have some family fun, ending with the closing of the cabin for the season. This year is a little different as Dan's professional career could take a new step with potential syndication, his home life is taking a turn as his daughters are each having a crisis, and Dan has a chance encounter that could forever change his future, or at the very least, his present.

After arriving at the gathering it becomes clear to the audience that Dan is the odd man out in this family. He is the awkward brother who gets to sleep in the "special room," rather, the laundry room with an incessantly banging machine. Everything about Dan is pointed to when his mother (Dianne Wiest) approaches him and says: "You do so much for your girls, but what do you do for yourself?" It is a good question. Dan tries to be the best father he can to his girls, pining for his deceased wife, whom we learn little about. The question also comes at a turning point in the evolution of Dan.

While the father/daughter conflict and Dan's attempts to do the best he can offer a lot of flavor to the film, it is not what is at the core of the movie. Now, if you have seen any commercials for the film you will know what is at the center, but to look at it as the only thing will overly simplify what is offered. No, Dan in Real Life is not a hard movie to crack; it is not difficult to understand. What it is is a pleasant look into the life of a man who does so much for others that he neglects his own needs, and the impetus that pushes him towards finding a new, more equal balance between helping others and helping himself.

Shortly after arriving at the cabin an incident with his girls puts Dan a bit on edge. His mother, in all her motherly wisdom, sends Dan out to get the papers, a trip that will force him to spend some time with himself (it is quite a drive to the nearest newstand). This is a fateful trip that will lead to his encounter with the enchanting Marie (French beauty Juliete Binoche). The two talk for a long time, realizing that they have much in common and that there could be a future there. Before they can get too far, Marie is called away. Dan returns home, floating on air after the encounter. This is where the situation gets a little sticky.

Marie is revealed to be his brother Mitch's (Dane Cook) girlfriend. Talk about awkward. This is the first woman to spark any life in him since the death of his wife, and he is held back by societal expectations due to her involvement with his brother.

You can probably tell where this is going to go without even seeing the film. You would probably be very close to the real thing. It is a romantic comedy that hits the usual beats and does not disappoint as it reaches its climax. The formula has been used countless times to countless different effects over the years. In this regard Dan in Real Life is nothing special. What makes this movie worthwhile is the performances and the way the characters interact with each other, even if it does play the edges of believability. Perhaps a better title would have been Dan in Surreal Life. There is a definite aura of reality, but it is a fringe reality.

Steve Carell is perfect in the lead role. He has an easy going humor to him, he carries himself in a way that would appear to be equally adept at comedy and drama, something I am sure we will see from him in the future. His facial reactions, his comic timing, his low-key demeanor all add up to a character that is captivating at the heart of the movie. Opposite him, Juliette Binoche is a vision of classy beauty and a wonderful change of pace from the twenty-somethings that generally fill this type of role. She brings something special to the role, just watch the way she looks at Dan when she cannot reveal her feelings for him, sweet and heartbreaking at the same time.

The supporting cast is also decent. Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney make a nice couple as the head of the extended family. Dane Cook is mostly tolerable as Mitch, Marie's boyfriend. Then, when she shows up, Emily Blunt breathes a some life into the screen.

Peter Hedges directed and co-wrote the script. For the most part, he does a fine job of getting the players in the right place and keeping the heart firmly in place. His last directorial effort is the underrated Pieces of April. This may not be quite as good as that ast effort, but it is still a very pleasing, at times laugh out loud hilarious and definitely worth spending some time with.

Bottomline. Dan in Real Life is a sweet slice of cinema that has modest aspirations as it plays up the standards of the romantic comedy without pandering to the audience. Carell offers up a memorable performace and is the main reason to watch this. Well, him and Juliette Binoche.



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