(2007)3.5Nathan SouthernAn irrepressible sweetness lies at the core of Peter Hedges' romantic comedy Dan in Real Life that makes it difficult to resist. We've seen the central characters and situations dozens of times before, and the script (which Hedges co-authored with Pierce Gardner) will never be mistaken for having much depth, but Steve Carell's winning evocation of a lovable, semi-sad-sack everyman widower gives the film a buoyancy that makes it transcendently, adamantly likable. That may be more of a compliment than it initially seems: as Dan Burns, Carell has to work triply hard because of an uneven script, and because several of the supporting characters -- played by such notables as the gifted Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney -- feel so supremely irritating and grating that their presence detracts from the film.
The central conflict involves Dan falling instantly for a woman he meets in a bookstore, Marie (Juliette Binoche), and subsequently discovering that she's romantically involved with his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook); this unfolds against the backdrop of Dan's family retreat with his parents (Wiest and Mahoney), his three daughters, and his assorted siblings. Hedges may have a proclivity for working out conflicts within super-dysfunctional families (as in his 2003 Pieces of April), but this one takes the cake. Does he realize how obnoxious these people are? Anyone who dreads the inclusion of movie singalongs (à la Stepmom) should beware: this may be the first movie family in history to perform coordinated aerobic routines to Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," and to stage an entire talent show, with costumes and musical numbers, in their living room. (How in the world they managed to produce a son as well-adjusted as Dan, even taking his flaws into account, is a complete enigma.)
As for the tone of Carell's character, however, Hedges has his finger on the audience's pulse; we know from the first shot of the film how it should end, and the director doesn't let us down. Moreover, we never fail to empathize with Dan as he begins inching -- and then clawing, with wonderfully droll (and sometimes manipulative) aggressiveness -- toward his one major shot at happiness. Though this movie falls far short of the gut-busting hilarity that Carell generated in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and exhibits on The Office, such isn't its intention; Hedges seems content to weave a warm, lingering spell with scattered flyspecks of humor. And for the most part, that works. The film even manages to survive the casting of the obnoxious Cook, who somehow exhibits a satisfying and genial onscreen presence here in defiance of the nimble-headed boob he has to play.
If the script suffers from one major, overriding weakness, it is simply the fact that Hedges and Gardner gloss over an onscreen depiction of Dan and Marie's first lengthy encounter together, via a series of montages and flash-forwards. If we're going to root for their being together, we should know exactly what is at stake -- otherwise, given the content of the subsequent scenes with the Burns family, Dan's emotions risk coming across as one-sided infatuation. Binoche benefits from a wondrous presence as always, despite being given precious little to work with; uniquely beautiful, distinguished, and sophisticated (qualities that recall Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), she's a perfect romantic lead for Carell. (Did it occur to anyone, though, given Binoche's enlistment as the female lead, that this is essentially a comic variant of the creepy dramatic situation that she dealt with in Damage?) Dan and Marie deserve happiness with one another; had Hedges jettisoned the sitcom-level romantic triangle subplot and explored the nuances and gradations of their relationship within a more intelligent framework, he might have produced a small masterpiece instead of simply a good-natured audience-pleaser. Still, there is much here to enjoy.
A widower and father of three who also writes a parenting advice column for his local newspaper falls for the girlfriend of his younger brother during a family vacation in director Peter Hedges' offbeat love-triangle laugher. Steve Carell stars as the writer who finds his widely known convictions put to the ultimate test, with Dane Cook and Juliette Binoche respectively assuming the roles of the younger sibling and his radiant girlfriend.