When life is getting Judge Brendan Babish down, he finds there's nothing as calm and soothing as resting his head on a tall stack of flapjacks.
Our review of Dan In Real Life (Blu-Ray), published March 3rd, 2008, is also available.
Something's happening to Dan. It's confusing. It's awkward. It's family.
Celebrated funnyman Steve Carell (The Office) takes a rare dramatic turn as the titular character in Dan in Real Life. Though comedians often have trouble in serious roles, this film can't be any worse than The Majestic, can it?
Facts of the Case
Dan Burns (Carell) is a successful small-town columnist who counsels local readers on family matters. It seems his main qualification for dispensing advice is his experience single-handedly raising three adolescent girls (Dan's wife has passed away).
While on vacation at a family cabin in Rhode Island, Dan has a chance meeting with the lovely, vaguely foreign Marie (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) in a used bookstore. He falls for her, she seems to fall for him, but there is a problem: Marie is in Rhode Island as the date of Dan's exuberant younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook, Good Luck Chuck). So what's a lonely widower to do, suppress the long-dormant tender feelings, or make a move on his lil' bro's girl?
It took me awhile to come around on Steve Carell. I thought he was amusing on The Daily Show, but lacked the faux-gravitas that launched Stephen Colbert into his own show. I found his early supporting work—namely in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy—to be broad, almost to Robin Williams levels. When I heard he was cast for the lead in The Office I gave up all hope on the show. I thought it had about as much chance at long-term success as Stacked.
Of course, my opinion of Carell has greatly improved over the last few years, to the point that I now think of him as one of the most consistent comedic actors working today. His surprisingly restrained and touching performance in Little Miss Sunshine also showed he's got dramatic chops. So it might not be so surprising that it is Carell's performance that saves the syrupy story and screenwriting in Dan in Real Life from being unpalatable.
Dan in Real Life was written and directed by Peter Hedges, who wrote the novel and adapted screenplay for the wonderful film, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. Since then his career has been uneven, with his work sometimes seeming a bit too mawkish. In Dan in Real Life Hedges displays his talent for infusing the mundane aspects of family life with humor and occasionally profundity. One slight example of this occurs early in the film, when Dan's parents give the visiting Marie his bedroom and have him sleep in the laundry room. To highlight the discomfort of these arrangements, Dan's mom (Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway) puts a load of laundry in the dryer while Dan tries to sleep. The gag works, and we get an idea of the larger discomfort and neglect in Dan's life.
However, Hedges also has a way of pushing both humor and drama to the point of incredulity. Later in the film, there is another shot of Dan sleeping in the laundry room, days later, but with the dryer still running. The gag worked once; but the idea of Dan's mother running the dryer every night while her son tries to sleep just doesn't make sense.
Still, it is the portrayal of the familial relationships that most threaten to undermine the story. Dan's two oldest daughters are mostly one-note representations of sullen teenagers. The only characteristic of the oldest (Alison Pill, Dear Wendy) is an incessant desire to drive. The second oldest daughter (Brittany Robertson) is almost entirely defined by her obnoxious badgering as she pleads with her father to let her spend more time with her new boyfriend. While casting Dane Cook is probably not a good idea in even the best of circumstances, putting him in a serious role here is a major liability for the film. Cook's reflexive mugging is distracting, undermines the character, and makes Marie's nascent attraction to him inexplicable.
Thankfully, Carell makes the most of Hedges' more inspired ideas, and these alone make Dan in Real Life not only watchable, but often moving. One of the highlights is a duet between Carell and Cook on Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door." It is Carell who almost single-handedly takes a promising idea and not only makes it true, but also the most affecting scene in the film. Though there are moments in Dan in Real Life where it's difficult to understand the profound attraction between Dan and Marie, this scene evinces Dan's feelings like nothing else in the movie.
Unfortunately, the song quickly leads to an ending that is rushed, contrived, and distracting in how many loose ends it manages to tie up in such a short period of time. So yes, Dan in Real Life is not perfect, far from it, but it is an affecting drama, and superior to most of Hollywood's depictions of quaint family life.
Touchstone picture has done a good job with the presentation of this movie on DVD. The Rhode Island countryside, which is drab, but homey, looks pristine. The sound is fair, though the dialogue seems to have been transferred at a level or two too low. The soundtrack, provided by singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche, was just loud enough that it was distracting, but still soft enough to prevent me from fully appreciating the songs themselves.
The two substantive extras on the disc are the commentary by Peter Hedges and approximately 20 minutes of deleted scenes. Hedges is engaging and his fondness for the film is evident and infectious. Most of the deleted scenes seem extraneous and cut for good reason, but there are a few that are funny and expansive. The other extras seem perfunctory: a few making-of docs and a gag reel that isn't that funny.
Dan in Real Life is neither a particularly profound nor hilarious look at contemporary family life. However, it is engaging and emotionally resonates, largely due to Steve Carell's successful portrayal as the affable and hapless Dan.
It's difficult to be harsh on such a feel-good family film, so Dan in Real Life is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Audio commentary with Peter Hedges
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