the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dan in Real Life

You might think that Dan in Real Life mines the familiar story of family dysfunction, a well that, let’s admit it, never runs dry. But you’d be wrong. Dan in Real Life goes boldly (and refreshingly) where few films have gone before — into the home of a normal, loving family dealing with an abnormal and unexpected trial.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a widower and father of three mutinous young daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson and Marlene Lawston), who makes his living as a family-advice columnist. Dan has never really recovered from the loss of his wife and takes refuge in trying to maintain an ordered home, devoid of anything unexpected or outside the box. Little does Dan know that an annual fall weekend with his large and boisterous family at his parent’s (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) sprawling Rhode Island home holds the surprise of his life — the universe abhors more than a vacuum, it also spitefully abhors perfectly ordered lives.

Soon after his arrival, Dan runs into the beautiful Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookshop and spends an intoxicating, rain-speckled morning chatting with her over breakfast. For the first time in as long as he can remember, Dan feels his inert heart beat again. But his joy at meeting Marie is dashed when he discovers she is none other than his younger brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) girlfriend whom he has brought up to New England to proudly introduce to the family.

Few things hurt more than being in love with someone who is already spoken for. As the weekend progresses, the Burns’ days are filled with a seemingly inexhaustible stream of activities from touch-football games on the lawn to family talent shows and colossal feasts. But all Dan can think about is Marie and mopes about the house, inviting his family’s concern and meddling. As the two try to squelch their growing attraction for each other, and throw Dan’s suspicious daughters off the scent, it leads from one comical situation to another. Before it is over, Dan will have to decide whether he wants to maintain his “play it safe” life or allow a surprise curve ball or two.

Like the early Die Hard films, one of the things that makes Dan in Real Life work is that it takes place within a confined space. The Burns house is a character unto itself and the privacy-deprived, close quarters within which the family must operate make for inevitable conflict and comedy. I was reminded of the underrated The Family Stone.

Steve Carell has a penchant for playing sad sacks on film in direct opposition to his over-the-top TV persona. It is a wise choice. It is hard to get “The Office’s” Michael Scott out of your head when watching him. His character in the uproarious Little Miss Sunshine worked because he hid himself behind a beard. Here he proves again that he is as adept at hysterical comedy as he is at heartbreaking drama. While he has a few classic “Carell slapstick moments” that are sure to garner big laughs, most of the humor in Dan in Real Life is lit by smaller, more humble moments.

Carell’s co-star, the acclaimed French actress Juliette Binoche, best known to American audiences for her portrayal of the selfless nurse in The English Patient, looks as young and radiant as we’ve ever seen her. Is Marie French? It never comes up. Binoche certainly seems to be doing her best American accent. Whatever slips through the cracks is explained by a life lived overseas. Either way, she is luminous.

Dan in Real Life is a film willing to admit that love is messy and that family, no matter how strained, is still the most perfect cauldron within which to ferment all those things that make life worth living in the first place — unconditional love, unqualified acceptance and irrational happiness.

Dan in Real Life is a large, monied film that feels like a small indie. Director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) has crafted a by-the-numbers formulaic dramedy, to be sure, but one that hits all the right notes.


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