The trailer for Dan in Real Life makes me smile. It has the editing just right, everyone looks like they’re having a good time at a family get-together, and there appears to be some close-knit relationships. Even Dane Cook, who appeared to be giving a very toned down performance, looked passable. I had been waiting for a role like this for Steve Carell for some time. After the Evan Almighty disaster it looked like this was the kind of project he needed—a warmer, intimate romantic comedy where Carell could potentially show his dramatic range. If it wasn’t award-worthy at least it would be a movie that could put a smile on your face; something that even a guy’s guy could admit to liking, akin to Nicolas Cage’s guilty pleasure The Family Man.
However, only half this even translated to the film. The movie is half-understated, intimate comedy, while the other half tends to veer into screwball comedy territory. There’s no excuse for Peter Hedges to take a story that should be a character study of what it’s like for a middle-aged man raising three daughters on his own and film it like Meet the Parents mixed with Wedding Crashers.
So basically the story is this: Dan (Carell) takes his three girls for a weekend with the family at their beautiful cabin. Dan needs to get away for awhile, goes to a bookstore, meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), talks her ear off, falls in love (I guess), and finds out Marie is actually dating his brother Mitch (Cook). Oh my. What a conundrum.
There are likable aspects of Dan in Real Life, but none of them add up to anything. The filmmakers have surrounded Carell with a great ensemble including John Mahoney, Emily Blunt, Amy Ryan, and the always-fantastic Dianne Weist, but no one is allowed to do anything. Every character at one point or another is made to look down upon Dan in such a one-dimensional way that you just want to smack everyone and say, “Will you just f*cking listen to his side of the story! After all, he IS raising three girls on his own.” The characters are given no motivation to work with and we immediately take Dan’s side in every scenario. There’s no complexities to the relationships shown.
And at the center of these relationships we have the supposed romantic link between Dan and Marie. What’s never shown, though, is why these two feel attracted to one another. Carell and Binoche have virtually no chemistry on-screen and I felt like their relationship serves to advance the story, but does not exist because it needs to. Instead of focusing on why these two characters should end up together, we’re forced to sit through a bunch of awkward encounters where Dan and Marie accidentally end up in the shower together, play touch football, and partake in some really random aerobics session in the front yard. I mean all we’re left to ponder is why Marie should choose Dan over Mitch or why Dan can’t just let his brother be happy and try giving the uber-delicious Emily Blunt a chance. Are we supposed to believe that Dan is a better suitor than Mitch because he remembers more lyrics to Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door”? The movie is absolutely afraid to make Carell look like a scumbag, even though stealing your brother’s girlfriend is a scum-baggy thing to do. The audience is never called to leave Carell’s side and maybe that’s because he’s so damn likable, but there’s no journey to take with the character if the motivations are just not there.
To top it off, the nearly perfect trailer is not even on the DVD features. We instead have some mini-docs with extremely boring but cheery director Peter Hedges. What I don’t understand is that this material should’ve been gold in his hands. He directed Pieces of April and wrote About a Boy, two comedies that didn’t resort to people falling off of rooftops for laughs, but instead focused on relationships. Again, he does not tell us why a football scene was necessary or what the talent show means for the characters. Do families even put on talent shows?
I also hate gag reels with no bloopers. Why put a gag reel in a film when everything you’re showing is people just laughing at something we don’t even see? Yes, people laugh if they miss a line—I laugh all the time at shit that’s not funny, but I don’t expect it to be on a gag reel. Where are the alternate takes, crew members accidentally walking into frame, people falling down?
Dan in Real Life is a movie that needed less people falling down and its gag reel needed MORE people falling down.
High-fives: Carell is enjoyable; Dane Cook is passable; great ensemble; a sweet trailer you can search for online; it’s short (only 99 minutes)
Low-fives: Said great ensemble has nothing to do; no chemistry between the romantic triangle; unfunny gag reel; situational comedy where you laugh at the characters instead of feeling for them; one-dimensional characters