Maybe you look at that poster for Dan In Real Life and you wonder what the heck to make of it. Is this a drama? Is it a comedy? Why on earth is Steve Carell in this and why does he have his head smashed up against a stack of pancakes? Ignore all those nagging questions. Forget whatever preconceived notions you might have from those pointless Hollywood trailers. Go in as blank as possible and trust that once you’ve seen it, everything will make wonderful sense, even the pancakes.
Evan & Jaron have a great song that features the lyrics, "the furthest distance I’ve ever known is from my head to my heart." That’s a particularly apt phrase for Dan, a man who daily uses his newspaper column to dispense pearls of sincerest wisdom to besieged parents, but who can’t seem to find his way with his own three daughters. Though he’s as dedicated a father as any child could hope for, since his wife’s death he has struggled to translate all that knowledge from his head to where it really counts: his own life. It’s a condition that everyone around him seems to notice, including his quirky, supportive extended family, but Dan remains in complete denial. Until the day he meets Marie.
A chance encounter at a bookstore brings Dan (Steve Carell) and Marie (Juliette Binoche) together, and an innocent morning conversation turns into something he never expected: a second chance at love. Equally as taken with him, Marie hesitantly offers her phone number with no promises, warning that she’s just started a new relationship. Dan heads back to the cabin where his aforementioned extended family is enjoying a traditional group vacation. They’re all abuzz over the arrival of Dan’s brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) new girlfriend: Marie.
Faced with that particular kind of plot revelation, I would usually balk. The “two-brothers-one-girl” bit has been done to death. But even when a set up has been used again and again, there’s always room for it to be done in a fresh and enjoyable way. Granted, it rarely occurs, but the possibility is there, and Dan In Real Life does everything right to make it happen. Yes, the film has its predictable moments, but, when the performances are so convincingly genuine, and disarming, even those anticipated twists are enjoyable.
Dan in Real Life offers another refreshing twist by refusing to pander. It doesn’t resort to either stock comic relief or dramatic tear jerking. There are no solely funny scenes or sad scenes because for once they’re blended together the way they should be. As the title suggests, this is Dan in real life, and just like real life there’s humor in tragedy and bitterness in joy. That blended balance requires a unique actor to play the lead, and it’s exactly that which makes Steve Carell the perfect man for the job.
There’s been a lot of concern over whether or not Carell can pull this part off. He’s established his position as a master of comedy and proven himself to a lesser extent with his semi-dramatic role in Little Miss Sunshine. This however, is his real test to see if he can carry a non-comic lead well enough be taken seriously. I’m pleased, and more than a little surprised, to say that he passes the test with flying colors. I expected him to do well, but nowhere near the success he rates as Dan. Turns out he’s a pretty well rounded actor, easily breaking away from the stereotype mold that Hollywood is so quick to stamp on him. Not only can he strike that precarious balance of drama and comedy, he can do it while playing the guitar. Better, he knows how to weave himself into scenes with others without overpowering his cast mates.
And it’s a good thing he doesn’t, because along with Binoche and Cook, the supporting cast is as close to perfect as you could hope. I’m sure shooting most of the movie in a very cozy cabin setting helped create a sense of family among them, but they also seem to go the extra mile to bond in a way that reflect the intimacies and tensions of a close-knit extended family. Maybe not everyone can relate, but their performances definitely awoke some memories for me, adding more to the sensation of real life that surrounds the story.
Dan in Real Life avoids the trite and cliché in favor of simplicity and honesty, so much so that this could be the story of how your aunt and uncle fell in love, or how your own son or brother met the woman who turned their life around. Thanks to a well directed cast, a brilliant script, and a perfectly matched soundtrack, this is easily the most uplifting, satisfying movie I’ve seen, or hope to see, all year.