Judge Ryan Keefer would also like to lie his weary head down on a stack of pancakes. Mmm, soft, warm, pillowy pancakes...
Our review of Dan In Real Life, published March 17th, 2008, is also available.
Something's happening to Dan. It's confusing. It's awkward. It's family.
Look at good old Steve Carell (The Office). Racking up all kinds of awards as Michael Scott, and doing the occasional film that serves to help enhance his comedic ability, Dan in Real Life seems to serve as a departure from his previous efforts. And in the grand scheme of things, is this a worthwhile turn?
Facts of the Case
Well quite frankly, all you needed to know was what appeared in the trailer that was on from time to time, but in case you didn't see it, Dan in Real Life was written and directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April). Carell plays Dan Burns, a widower for several years, splitting his time between raising his three daughters and writing an advice column. He takes the girls out to Rhode Island as part of an annual family reunion, and along the way, he runs into Marie (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) at a bookstore. He opens up to her, something he hasn't done since his wife's death. The problem is that Marie runs into her boyfriend Mitch (Dane Cook, Good Luck Chuck), who also happens to be Dan's brother. So the reunion's balance is spent with Dan trying to still be the capable father, while trying to figure out how to approach Marie now in light of this news.
In the commentary for the film, Hedges mentions that a lot of what appears on screen is scripted, with the occasional improvised line or two. It's amazing to me that this was the case, as the interactions between the actors really gives you the idea of family, and very little effort seemed to go into what they did on screen. This is to Hedges' credit, because getting so many people on set to work well to the point of it seeming natural is tough to accomplish without a lot of rehearsal and pre-production time, which Carell (at least) didn't get. I'd like to see what Hedges does going forward to distinguish his work, but to his credit, I haven't seen family and friends of this number get along so well since The Big Chill.
To give you an idea of the number of people in the film, you've got Dan and his girls, Marie, Mitch, you've got Eileen (Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone), Clay (Norbert Leo Butz), Amy (Jessica Hecht, Sideways) and Howard (Dan Wood, Michael Clayton), and I'm not counting the kids. Heading the family are Poppy (John Mahoney, Frasier) and Nana (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood). Miraculously, there are contributions from most of the characters. At first I had to call a boycott rule on the film, because Cook appears in it, but Hedges manages to keep him tolerable and even palatable, but that doesn't mean I'd go out and perform the Superfinger anytime soon. And even with all of the people in this film, some of them are criminally underused (Mahoney and Wiest, I'm looking at you here).
With the pleasant surprises in the film, the overall story seems to still fall a little bit muddled. The trailer was pretty self-explanatory and sets up the first half of the film, but then the execution in the second half comes across as confusing. As one who doesn't have kids for the moment, it seems as if Dan needs to feel bad for a moment of personal satisfaction which some people could consider as selfish. And why the hell should he? At least one of the daughters seems to be a little bit ungrateful and could use a smack across the mouth, but the other two appear particularly more level headed, and in a scene with the youngest near the end of the film, it seems like it borders on the Little Miss Sunshine side, when the youngest one comes across as smarter more than any of the adults. As Dan, Carell seems to want to try and do something with the role, but his performance comes across as a little more subdued than it probably should be. In between his performance and the story, I was left sad that Dan in Real Life could have been more, but wasn't.
The 1.85:1 widescreen version of Dan in Real Life uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec and doesn't look too shabby. The blacks are surprisingly dark and the image is clear as a bell. The flesh tones are a little too much on the white side and from time to time the image is a bit on the soft side, but the picture is better than I was expecting it to be. The PCM soundtrack is a disappointment; even though this is a dialogue driven dark comedy with not a lot of laughs, the dialogue is recorded much too softly, or it is almost at a whisper, which is simply not acceptable for a 2007 feature. You've got to overcompensate on this when you watch it and it's a bit on the ridiculous side, not the best technical effort to say the least.
On the supplements side the material isn't too bad. Hedges provides a commentary for the film, but unfortunately he's all by his lonesome for it. Fortunately though, he keeps the track active, discussing his fondness for Sondre Lerche, who contributed the score or the film, and he talks about how he got to direct it. His recollection isn't too bad and he talks about some scene breakdowns from time to time, but the track seems to lack a little as far as valuable or worthwhile information to speak of. Still, I'd probably suggest checking it out. Next is your standard run of the mill look at the film's production with interviews from the cast and crew which lasts for about fifteen minutes. A ten minute look at Lerche and his compositions follows, with a discussion about how he came to the film and his intent for the music in it, and some studio footage with him and Hedges is included. A three minute blooper reel that really isn't all that funny is next, as well as a slightly-hidden minute-long look at Carell's eternal requests to do a scene "one more time." Twenty minutes of deleted scenes wrap it up, and while some of them are simply extended footage, others are better than that. There's a good scene that sets up a third act scene with Dan and his girls, and another scene where Dan talks to his parents about the stuff he's done, and I would have left them in. 'Cause I'm another Scorsese.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I hate to fall back on something I touched on earlier, but the way that Hedges manages to capture the spirit and fun of the way the Burns family communicates through three generations is commendable. You're really drawn into the way that they get along and you'd even like to see it in your own family, and while that charm could have carried this 90 minute film most of the way, the time was given to character arcs that were more conventional and predictable, which was the main flow of the feature.
Dan in Real Life serves as a different character to play for Steve Carell, but not much past that. The performances from the cast are good but not great. The technical qualities are okay and the bonus material is a little bit on the thin side, but in terms of whether or not you'll enjoy this film, it might be better to recommend Pieces of April or some other family-based film in the same mold. Me? I'd probably rent it if I were you, and do very little else.
Considering what Carell has done in the past, I'm liable to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, but Hedges is sentenced to go back to the drawing board to tweak things a little bit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Commentary with Writer/Director Peter Hedges
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