Dan in Real Life


Irony Overload

Main Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook

Director: Peter Hedges

I’m not really the world’s biggest fan of the romantic comedy. But……I love Steve Carell. I even love him enough to see a movie marketed as a rom/com just because he plays the lead role. And honestly, I got exactly what I deserved – a movie that didn’t do a thing for me, but a great performance from Carell.

Carell plays Dan. Dan is a family advice columnist with a predictably crappy home life (that’s irony – gives advice to others while world falling apart – too bad it’s been used a billion times before). Dan is a widower of four years and feels the pain of that loss acutely. His three daughters are undoubtedly also still hurting and he does his best to be a patient and sensitive parent. Too bad two of them are teenagers. Yikes.

The core of Dan in Real Life (besides that being the name of his column – there’s that irony again – see, it’s the name of his column and what the movie is about – yeah, I’m already sick of the cutesy irony too) is a single weekend with his extended family in Rhode Island. It’s clearly stated that the large family only has this one chance per year to be all together and it is equally clear that they aren’t “close” as individuals the rest of the time. They gather at the home of Dan’s parents (Diane Wiest and John Mahoney) in what is apparently a gigantic sprawling home large enough to contain what seems like fourteen siblings and twice as many grandchildren.

Actually, I have no idea how many siblings there are. Aside from one brother, they get little enough screen time that I can’t tell who is who and what their relationships are. Same for the grandchildren – except for Dan’s own screaming shrews, of course. They make themselves more than adequately heard, seen and felt. Yikes once again.

Now there can’t really be any movie without some sort of contrived situation to make Dan uncomfortable, thus funny. So we get Juliette Binoche playing Marie, who happens to run into Dan while he is out getting a paper. They hit it off quite nicely, something that hasn’t happened for Dan in a long time. She fails to mention that she is also the girlfriend of his brother, though they will both find this out soon enough and gales of laughter and rivers of tears will flow.

Or maybe not. Truthfully, I don’t like one single person in this movie except Dan. His parents are dippy, bossy and not

particularly sensitive. Same for his siblings. When did it become appropriate for family members to harass an obviously

Photo of Juliette Binoche

The Lovely Ms. Binoche

still grieving widower about his sex life? It clearly makes him horribly uncomfortable, yet they persist, and persist and persist. I guess we’re supposed to laugh, and sometimes we do. Mostly I feel sorry for Dan and his crappy, insensitive, buttinski family. He hardly ever sees them, where do they get off telling him how to feel? On that same note, what’s with the family sing-alongs? They see each other once a year! Yet they just fall into some weird, Norman Rockwell fantasy of close family traditions? Peh.

Dan’s daughters may actually be worse. They are (except for the youngest, who is really only around to be precocious and make Dan feel guilty at the end) the most stereotypical, hysterical, unstable teenage girls I have ever seen. Hysterics over not being allowed to drive to this “vacation” or bring along some boy are taken to a ridiculous level until you want to smack both girls and remind them that despite their complete and utter self centeredness, they have recently lost a parent and it might be good to give the one that remains A BREAK! They bug me; the actresses playing them bug me. I don’t know if I would even recognize them if I were to see them in another film, which is good for them, since I would automatically dislike them because they are selfish and mean in Dan in Real Life. Yes, I do hold that type of unreasonable grudge, thank you very much.

The “love story” is hackneyed and clichéd, with its “love at first sight” crap and its magical coincidence with this revolting family reunion. Juliette Binoche tries with the material, but she can only do so much. Her character is lovely and sweet and charming, and shamelessly leads on a lonely man, allowing him to pour his heart out to her, despite knowing full well that she will be spending the weekend with her big dumb jock boyfriend. That he happens to be the brother of the man she crudely used is just icing on the cake. I want to like this character, if only for Dan’s sake, but I don’t. Her first act is one of disloyalty and betrayal. But Juliette Binoche is very pretty, and quite elegant. At least there’s that.

Photo of Steve Carell

The Charming Mr. Carell

The big dumb jock brother is actively bad in nearly every way. Played by Dane Cook, he is not only unattractive, but is also stupid and there is clearly no chemistry between him and his “girlfriend”. That he misses every single clue that something is terribly amiss with his brother and this woman simply proves he’s an idiot. Once again, can’t stand the character. And this time, I can’t stand the actor either. He has the subtlety of a 150 pound drooling St. Bernard, but without the charm.

Only Steve Carell makes me care at all. I want Dan to be happy because he’s so put upon by the jerks around him that he deserves it. Carrel shows the same melancholy detachment he had in Little Miss Sunshine. He’s still so hurt by the loss of his wife, and then hurt again when the woman he thinks might finally break through turns out to be something entirely different. He puts up with his horrible family (both nuclear and extended), all the while feeling guilty that he isn’t better – a better father, a better son and brother, a better everything. Carell is so sweet and lovable you want to get him away from these people. He is, occasionally, also very funny. There are a couple of moments that would suit his character from TV’s The Office quite well – they are very brief, but extremely well placed and well played.

So. I can’t stand the set-up. I hate all but one of the characters. I don’t care about the performers because there are too many to tell them apart. Except for Dane Cook who is a lumbering moron. The storyline is stupid and the family is horrid. The “close family traditions” are clichéd and feel false. The teenage daughters need to be grounded for life. The character played by the lovely and talented Juliette Binoche deserves no better than the lumbering moron. But……I like Dan. I like how well Dan is played by Steve Carell. I like that Carell is able to put some humanity into this man, even though the entire movie is set up for people to make light of and laugh at his pain and discomfort. Carell is able to make that happen through sheer force of will – the funny parts are all funny because he takes crap and turns it into something worth laughing about. The touching portions are touching because he lets his character be hurt and lost and angry. He’s the only decent thing about the entire movie. I can’t stand Dan in Real Life, but it does one thing – proves to me that my faith in Steve Carell is not misplaced. He can do both funny and melancholy, and he can do them in the same character. I hope the next chance he gets to star is in a movie deserving of his talent. Dan in Real Life just sucks.  Watch Carell in The Office instead.

photo by gdcgraphics

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