Dir. Peter Hedges, USA, 2007, 99 minutes, colour, 35 mm.
Dan in Real Life takes on a familiar character, the seemingly omniscient newspaper advice-giver (Steve Carell), whose family life as a widower with three daughters doesn't measure up to the wisdom of his daily columns. Dan's love life is even more of a mess in Peter Hedges's new comedy, which plods through heavy doses of sincerity to get a few laughs. Yet the dysfunction of three generations is full of warmth in this ensemble romp, which could give Dan in Real Life a berth in the family niche at the box office, always a Disney goal.
Carrel's fan base is now huge, and some of them will warm to him in this role as a bumbling tender soul, although teenagers - clearly a target - may be reluctant to see a good-natured film about a parent, albeit an inept one. The humour here is so American that it is unlikely to travel well to foreign markets, yet Carrel'sinternational profile just could make it happen.
Dan, a sage to everyone but his family, takes three peevish daughters to a family Thanksgiving on the ocean in rainy Rhode Island, prying one of them free from a new boyfriend. While killing time in a bookstore on an emotional break from his family, he poses as a shop clerk and falls for French shopper Marie (Juliet Binoche), who bolts from a long conversation with the books that he's sold her to meet the other half of her new relationship.
Her beau back at the house turns out to be Dan's brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), and we're into an intrigue of Dan and Marie in crowded quarters pretending not to know each other as the family welcomes her as a future in-law.
The script by Pierce Gardner and Hedges (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Pieces of April) plays this conflict out in family dinner-table banter, with John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest as parents of the large brood, and in games that result predictably in Dan and Marie rubbing against each other. For the earnest crowd, these gentle bumbling gags might be funny. Yet the Boy Scout humour may have you begging for reruns of The Office.
Carrel in the role of a 40-year old widower struggling with kids and a sudden love suffers from Hedges's weak direction, which tosses him around from one awkward situation to another. He probably won't be remembered for this character. Binoche is game for the improbable part in the fast-talking family sparring, yet she's clearly more suited to romance than comedy, as we see in a touching scene when the two flee the family separately and end up alone together in an empty bowling alley, rolling gutter balls.
Hedges's approach to his supporting cast is to Disney-ize them, and dull their edge, with Cook an even dopier version of the love-addled Dan, and Mahoney and Wiest under-utilized as dutiful parents.
The film does come to life in scenes with Carrel's trio of daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, and Marlene Lawston), who act out their growing pains deftly and provide some of the comedy's genuine emotions as reality checks on their father's blithe advice-giving.
Allusions to other movies are all over this one. The family road trip makes you think of the Carrel hit Little Miss Sunshine, and the family holiday gathering as comic crucible comes right out of Pieces of April, a 2003 Thanksgiving dysfunction-fest which Hedges wrote and directed. When Mitch sings sincerely and unendurably, with Dan's accompaniment and prompting, at a family talent show, Cyrano is the template.
Lawrence Sher's camera bounces around with the action in the crowded, creaky family cottage, stressing broad comedy rather than beauty shots. Sarah Flack's editing contributes to the rough and tumble pace. Music by the Norwegian singer songwriter Sondre Lerche is a light novelty.
Buena Vista Pictures
Darlene Caamano Loquet
Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda
Director of photography