“Dan’s” life more real than might appear
It would be easy to write off “Dan in Real Life” as just another trite, predictable romantic comedy– if the film weren’t filled with so many sweet little revelations. “Dan” is an original, not in its structure, but in the way it gives its excellent cast the opportunity to breathe life into its gentle quirkiness. Those who loved last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” might prefer more edgy material that involves drugs, profanity, or death. Those who liked 2005’s “The Family Stone” might want their movie families more dysfunctional. But hopefully audiences will find room in their heart for “Dan’s” sure-footed, easy to understand charm.
Dan, (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist and widowed father of three girls. There is the sweet, eight-year-old Lily (Marlene Lawston), the boy crazy 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson), and ready-to-drive and be an adult 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill). While making strides to keep Cara and her boyfriend of three days apart, Dan is called a “murderer of love!” in the anguished cry of an infatuated teenage girl. Sometimes you can’t win as a father. In this case, Dan’s methods may be questionable, but his affection is not.
So when Dan has a “meet cute” with Marie (Juliette Binoche of “Chocolat”) in a book store while his family is having a reunion at its beautiful Rhode Island beach house, things start looking up.
Writer-director Peter Hedges (who directed the delightful “About a Boy,” and penned “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) clearly takes a few shortcuts. But it’s clear Dan and Marie have a winning, filled-with-potential connection, only to see it dashed by a plot turn that is best left undisclosed (try to avoid the overly revealing previews). The two are forced into a clandestine pining while a variety of family activities keep them awkwardly close to one another.
Most of the movie’s events occur in and around the beach house where the family’s quirky personalities and traditions are celebrated. At first blush, the family members played by Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney, Dane Cook, and Norbert Leo Butz appear too comfortable sharing and discussing Dan’s issues. And some of their activities together, including an impromptu family aerobics workout on the back lawn, seem a little overcooked. Then it happens: With a little bit of reflection we realize that not only do we know families like the Burnses, we might belong to one.
Carell is at his Charlie Brown-ish best, impishly taking his lumps while adroitly displaying his uniquely comical reflexes. Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) makes a cameo appearance as a 24-year-old formerly homely girl turned grown-up hottie, and if you can’t imagine the 43-year-old Binoche being every bit as sexy as Blunt, then “Dan’s” real life may seem like an only in-the-movies convention.
For the rest of us, “Dan in Real Life” feels fresh and old-fashioned at the same time; a gentle and convincing concoction with some musical moments and an indie-spirited soundtrack that won’t be easily forgotten. A multi-generational romantic comedy is a rare and precious thing to behold.
Rated PG (Parents strongly cautioned).