Dan in Real Life is simply a film that doesn’t live up to what its title and slogan promises. As far as the movie feeling like real life goes, this is far from it, despite a few honest and sincere moments. The slogan for the film is â€œplan to be surprised,â€ but I found most of it to be formulaic and predictable. The movie makes a disastrous misstep in the beginning and no matter how hard it tries, and it tries hard, it cannot recover from it. It is such a big mistake that every sincere moment and laugh that follows is nearly insignificant.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a single father of three daughters: 17-year old Jane (Allison Pill, 2003’s Fast Food High), her slightly younger sister Cara (Brittany Robertson, 2004’s The Last Summer), and Lily (Marlene Lawston, 2005’s Flightplan), who is no more than eight years old. Dan is a columnist who answers people’s questions about family and relationship issues and his section is called Dan in Real Life. For someone who gives consistently good advice, Dan realizes that he’s the one who needs help as he runs into a situation that’s over his head and makes one mistake after another.
Dan takes his daughters to an annual family reunion at his mother and father’s Rhode Island home, which is set next to a cove. While at a local bookstore, he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche, 2006’s Breaking and Entering), who appears to be a free spirit and someone who has had a very eventful life traveling all over the world. The two have coffee together and Dan explains his life story without getting any information out of Marie except that she’s in a relationship. Dan is stunned to find out that relationship is with his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook, Good Luck Chuck). Mitch invites Marie to stay at their house for the reunion which leads to three of the most awkward days of Dan’s life as he fall head over heels in love with her.
The biggest problem in Dan in Real Life is that coffee scene, which is not fifteen minutes into the film. Dan tells his story while learning almost nothing about Marie. Once he finds out that Mitch is dating Marie he should easily have been able to let it go right there and then because he doesn’t know her very well. Instead he becomes completely obsessed in the course of only three days. The movie itself feels a lot longer than that, referring to the family vacation which feels like it is spanned over at least a week. That is the result of many scenes feeling overly long and dragged out.
The blame goes on writer/director Peter Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner and not on Steve Carell. Carell is a good actor but his character is poorly written. This role does show viewers that he has a lot more range than comedian actors such as Ben Stiller. Carell is able to flip that slapstick attitude switch off and add a little complexity to his character. I got the sense that Juliette Binoche was not giving her best effort as Marie, who is very enigmatic. The audience has as difficult of a time trying to figure out Marie as Dan does. If there is one surprise in Dan in Real Life it’s comedian and now fellow comedian actor Dane Cook’s role as Mitch; a gigantic step up from the atrocious Good Luck Chuck. Cook is back to showing that same quality acting potential he showed in the summer movie Mr. Brooks and is a bigger asset to Dan in Real Life than he is an anchor holding the ship down.
There are a lot of supporting players in Dan in Real Life but most of the screen time goes to Dan’s daughters: Jane, Cara, and Lily. Allison Pill as Jane is very down-to-earth and seems like that big sister who wants to take care of her siblings. Marelene Lawston as Lily is as sweet and innocent as can be and does her part by bringing out the best in Dan in a couple of sincere scenes. Brittany Robertson as Cara is on the short end of the stick here. Writers Hedges and Gardner waste time with a puppy love subplot involving Cara and her boyfriend Marty. Cara is such a ridiculously over-the-top drama queen, it makes the movie seem as far from real life as possible. We can only hope that this doesn’t rub off on Robertson’s future performances. Other characters are not explored as well as one would prefer. Amy Ryan, who just came off an astounding supporting performance in Gone Baby Gone (one that I didn’t go into as much detail as I should have) is vastly underused as Dan’s sister-in-law and Emily Blunt (2006’s The Devil Wears Prada) is wasted as the girl Dan’s family tries to pair him up with.
Director Peter Hedges keeps things light and low-key but too much for the movie’s own good. There are other problems besides Hedges creating a main character that seems to desire pity more than an audience to cheer him on. Hedges has very few surprises up his sleeve and the plot is mostly cliched. The movie keeps slowly faltering away from reality; meanwhile there is a deprivation of laughter. Not only are laughs few and far between but there are quite a few moments where the movie doesn’t seem to have any life in it at all. The pacing is far too slow.
While it has its moments, Dan in Real Life is a very disappointing and run-of-the-mill final product, especially after advertising itself as a realistic and relatable comedy. I’ve been in a couple of awkward situations similar to the one Dan finds himself in and I think a lot of us have as well. Anyone who has been in these situations should agree that they rarely turn out the way we want them to. That, my friends, is real life and not Dan in Real Life.
Release Date: October 26, 2007
Rated: PG-13 for some innuendo.
Running Time: 1 hour 35 min.
Cast: Steve Carell, Dane Cook, Juliette Binoche, Emily Blunt, Amy Ryan
Director: Peter Hedges
Screenplay: Peter Hedges, Pierce Gardner
Studio: Focus Features, Buena Vista Pictures
Official Website: daninreallife.movies.go.com