A film review by Craig J. Koban

DAN IN REAL LIFE  jjj

2007, PG-13, 98 mins.

Dan Burns: Steve Carell / Marie: Juliette Binoche / Mitch Burns: Dane Cook / Clay Burns: Norbert Leo Butz / Poppy Burns: John Mahoney / Nana: Dianne Wiest / Ruthie: Emily Blunt

Directed by Peter Hedges / Written by Pierce Gardner and Hedges.

I sure do like Steve Carell.  He is certainly a very funny man, but underneath his obvious comedic facade lies a tenderhearted and unpretentious soul.

I think that these traits are what made THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN work so well: If you look beyond itís clear cut and oftentimes in-your-face scatological coarseness, the film was also sort of bittersweet and endearing because of  Carellís sweat and mild-mannered performance.  Lesser actors and comedians would have played that part broadly for cheap, sophomoric laughs.  What Carell did was a bit atypical for a sex comedy: he infused in his character a sort of soft-spoken humility and charm.  He made you care for him.

DAN IN REAL LIFE is a dramady that harnesses these affable characteristics  that Carell so effortlessly displayed in VIRGIN.  The film, as far this genre allows, is methodically predictable and routine and often speeds by with largely sitcom-inspired moments, but it largely succeeds on the strength and presence of Carell himself.  I think that his work here further demonstrates how he desires to take the path least taken by comedic actors.  Most of them launch themselves into a career of making wild and boisterous laugh riots (and Carell has certainly made a few), but Carrell seems content to bypass making screwball farces and instead looks towards playing low-key everymen.  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and VIRGIN display this, and DAN IN REAL LIFE shows how well Carell can shine underplaying roles that require a delicate balancing act between awkward buffoonery and sincerity.

Perhaps he is so innately likeable because he plays such a fringe character that has so much difficulty getting respect from just about everyone around him.  In the film he plays Dan Burns, a widely successful newspaper columnist that writes an advice column.  As strong as he is with dishing out counsel to his faceless readers, Dan has considerable difficulty helping himself through being a single father.  His wife died tragically and suddenly four years ago and that subsequently led to him raising not one, not two, but three daughters.  To make matters worse, two of them are precocious and fiercely independent teens.

There is the 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), the 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) and the youngest sibling, Lilly (Marlene Lawston).  Of course, Dan tries as hard as he can to be a good dad, which means driving the kids to school, making all of their lunches (he pours the mustard on the bread into happy faces to keep his optimism up), but his daughters uniformly see their dad as a hopeless dweeb.  Complicating matters is Danís complete inability to have any real success with women.  Even his folks constantly worry about his difficulty moving on a finding a new love.  Dan, being a sweet chap, still thinks of his dead wife as that million dollar lottery winning ticket that will be difficult to duplicate.

Every year the Burns family gets together at the parentsí cottage (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney, both decent in fairly stock mom and pop characters).  As the rest of the Burns clan gathers, Dan feels the need to escape out of the confines of the house to get some much needed me-time.  He decides to cruise through a local bookstore and while there he has one of those obligatory movie "meet cutes."  He encounters the beautiful and seemingly perfect Marie (played the beautiful Juliette Binoche, who lights up the screen with every smile here).

The two hit it off famously, especially when Dan is able to suggest a series of books, which ends with a laugh for both of them (Marie initially assumes that Dan is a store clerk).  Then the two have coffee and engage in endless conversations: the two seem to have a lot of palpable chemistry.  Danís shyness and tepidness finally is pushed aside and he asks her for her number.  She is reluctant, largely because she is "seeing someone."  Dan wisely points out that he would just like to have it so that they can continue on with their sparkling discussions.  She eventually gives in and Dan returns home, higher than a proverbial kite.

Dan tells his younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook, a far cry from his revoltingly annoying screen presence in this yearís GOOD LUCK CHUCK) about meeting the girl of his dreams.  Just as heís about to give out more juicy details a visitor has arrived.  It is Mitchís new "love of his life" and I donít think it takes a person of Nostradamusí forecasting skills to see that - yes - Mitchís girlfriend is Marie.

Curses!!

The rest of the film is then an emotional cat and mouse game with Dan seemingly suffering the most.  It is clear that Dan has very quickly falling head over heals for this woman (and since the woman is played by the luminous Binoche, itís not hard to see why), and Marie, in turn, has affection for Dan, but realizes her current situation.  Dan does not want to destroy his brotherís happiness (for once, Mitch seems to have settled down with a respectable woman instead of the endless floosies he has succumbed to in the past).  The whole arc of the filmís comedy is the latently suppressed sexually energy that Dan continues to bottle up.  He wants this woman, but knows he canít easily have her.

If there were some dicey areas in DAN IN REAL LIFE then it would certainly be in how it constructs the comic possibilities of its premise.  Some of the laughs and pratfalls seem kind of ham-infested.  There is one moment where Marie and Dan have a soulful conversation in a bathroom, then Danís daughter comes in to talk to Marie, during which Dan decides to hide in the shower.  Obviously, this will lead to a moment of predictable awkwardness when the shower turns on and Dan is drenched, all while a naked Marie will end up in there with him.  There is also a recurring gag with a police officer thatís not quite as funny as it wants to be.

Then there is a double date where Mitch and Marie go with Dan and his blind date, played by the fetching Emily Blunt.  Predictably, Bluntís character serves no other real purpose other than to be used by Dan to make Marie jealous, which is clear seeing as he has no real feelings for this woman.  Perhaps the screenplay would have been more intriguing if Bluntís character became more credible and Dan grew attracted to her and made Marie the swooning, love struck pursuer.  We are also given a scene late in the film where the whole family inevitably sees Marie and Dan in each others arms, which sets the filmís third act into a tailspin.

Yet, despite all of the filmís roughness with its script and story developments that are as routine as they come, DAN IN REAL LIFE eclipses itís deficiencies mainly because of the strength of Carellís performance and for the humbleness he brings to the screen.  I appreciated how emotionally grounded he makes Dan: he is simultaneously a smart, whimsical, melancholic, and depressed figure, and one that yearns for affection and understanding from his unsympathetic children.  Carell has a gift for understating a line for strong comedic effect (look at how he tells an officer to take his speeding ticket and "put it on his tab") and often garners huge laughs by his unassuming and quietly goofy nature. 

But his best scenes are the ones where Dan is at his most vulnerable and confused.  Carell plays two scenes in particular to genuine heartrending effect: One where he plays the guitar during a family talent show and feebly tries to finish the lyrics of a love song with Marie looking on and another where he sits down with his kids and reveals all of his weaknesses and failures to them.  The film elevates itself over its mundane elements with the way it generates warm and plausible sentimentality.

DAN IN REAL LIFE certainly does not reinvent the wheel in terms of romantic dramedies; itís as preordained with its plot as these types of films get and rigorously goes for an ending that conveniently appeases every single character.  Alas, the film most definitely has its heart in the right place and is able to foster an offbeat comic edge alongside moments of touching drama.  The filmís director, Peter Hedges, wrote the novel and screenplay for the wonderful WHATíS EATING GILBERT GRAPE, co-wrote one of my favourite films of 2002 in ABOUT A BOY, and made PIECES OF APRIL, a sublime little comedy about a dysfunctional family.  DAN IN REAL LIFE may not be his most stellar effort, but it nevertheless is an enjoyable, lightweight, and easy going comedy thatís warm and pleasing to sit through.  Even more so, the film has a gentle and comfortable spirit that is cradled by yet another winning performance by Carell, who knows how to infuse a film like this with laughs and authentic emotion.

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