"Dan in Real Life" is a love story, a human comedy, and a family drama all rolled into a tidy slice-of-life package. Its natural recent comparison would be 2005's "The Family Stone
," a more poignant but also perhaps glossier film that featured an alarmingly similar plot, with a woman going to meet her significant other's large family and ultimately falling in love with his black sheep brother instead. There are times when writer-director Peter Hedges (2003's "Pieces of April
") and co-screenwriter Pierce Gardner (2000's "Lost Souls
") can't resist some overly precious rituals when it comes to establishing the family's dynamicthey all work out together in the early morning; they put on a talent contest in the living room; they play hide-and-seek (adults too)but the authenticity of the title character's personal soul-searching crises also gives the proceedings a balance of levity.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a respected newspaper advice columnist and a widowed father struggling to raise three daughterscontemplative 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), boy-crazy 14-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) and self-sufficient 8-year-old Lilly (Marlene Lawston). Traveling up to the seaside Rhode Island home of his dad (John Mahoney) and mom (Dianne Wiest) for an annual week-long family get-together, Dan unexpectedly meets the endearingly French, certainly beautiful Marie (Juliette Binoche) while out at a used book store. The two of them hit it off right away and spend an hour or two talking over coffee and muffins. By the end, both Dan and Marie, the latter admitting she is already in a relationship, are aware of the soulful connection they've made. Proving that things in Dan's life rarely go quite the way he wants or expects them to, he excitedly returns to his family with gushings of a woman he has just had a chance encounter with only to discover that Marie's mentioned boyfriend is his younger brother Mitch (a nicely underplaying Dane Cook). Forced to coexist for a week in the same house as the woman he is secretly falling in love with, it is only a matter of time before the truth of this sticky situation comes out.
In "Dan in Real Life," sitcom trappings are in evidencei.e. with Marie staying with them, Dan's sleeping quarters are relegated to a cot in the laundry room, the constantly in-use washer and dryer keeping him awake during all hours of the night; Dan's strained series of run-ins with a copand they come at the expense of developing beyond face value most of the harried protagonist's extended family. As Dan's concerned parents, John Mahoney (TV's "Frasier") and Dianne Wiest (2001's "I Am Sam
") are too good for the peripheral, vaguely drawn roles they have been given, while, save for brother Mitch, his siblings, sisters-in-law, and many nieces and nephews are basically background players with little to do or say. More attention to upgrading these neglected characters beyond single dimension would have aided in a deeper, more relatable portrayal of the family at large. Because little is learned about them, their pasts, or their relationship with Dan, they feel more like pawns in a screenplay than actual people with dreams, professions and lives of their own.
Nonetheless, "Dan in Real Life" works because of two invaluable factors. The first is the love story between Dan and Marie. It is close to invigorating to watch a major studio film where the question is not if the romantic leads are right for each otherthey realize they are probably soul mates very early onbut how they are going to be able to follow through with a relationship under the knowledge that it would be a betrayal of Mitch's love and trust in each of them. Though Marie is too idealized by director Peter Hedgesreally, she is close to the female embodiment of perfectionJuliette Binoche (2006's "Breaking and Entering
") is so radiant in the role that one barely notices what a wish-fulfillment she is. A few flaws would have been welcomed in the character, but Binoche, usually seen in more serious fare, is clearly having a ball here and the fun runs off on the viewer. That Marie and Danor is it Binoche and Carell?share the warm, delectable chemistry that they do is also a great help in wanting them to be a couple.
The other aspect of "Dan in Real Life" that excels is Steve Carell (2007's "Evan Almighty
") himself, a revelation only hinted at in TV's "The Office" and 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin
." As Dan Burns, a man stuck in a personal rut who is more well-adjusted than his meddling family gives him credit for, Carell adroitly essays a character who in every possible way besides physical is different than the other parts he has played. Carell reigns back his funny-man persona and disappears into Dan with such commitment that it is like watching another actor. He still gets laughs, as when he takes Lilly, a niece and a nephew on a disappointing car trip that leaves all of them depressed, but it is of a sadder variety that leads to a very effective dramatic moment where he serenades Marie in front of his family without any of them realizing the words are meant directly for her. His scenes with his daughters also hit all the right notes. This a highly capable turn, and one that cements Carell as more than a flash in the pan.
"Dan in Real Life" is comfortable and enjoyable in an unpushy sort of way, retaining a low-key, easy-breezy tone that doesn't clutter the narrative with unnecessary plot strands or go for cheap gags. Time will tell if its small-town, almost indie-rooted sensibilities will win over mainstream adult audiences used to flashier productions, but it does deserve success if for no other reason than to give the talented Steve Carell further opportunities in his career to do quirkier, less broad projects like this one. In his astute, beautifully modulated performance and in his touching character's many trials and travails toward being a better man and father, "Dan in Real Life" messily and resonantly resembles, well, real life.