The lively new romantic comedy DAN IN REAL LIFE has got to be the best surprise of the year at the movies. Co-writer and director Peter Hedges, who wrote and directed PIECES OF APRIL and wrote the scripts for WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? and ABOUT A BOY, has crafted a touching, sad, and ultimately funny family movie that while sticking to the conventions of the genre, rarely feels forced or routine. It also helps when you have a great ensemble cast on board, anchored by a winning lead performance from funnyman Steve Carell. If you've heard the phrase: "that was a nice little movie," well, that's DAN IN REAL LIFE in a nutshell; light, fun, and a pleasure to be around.
Carell is the titular Dan, a widowed father of three girls (aged 8 to 16), who is having a tough time balancing being a parent and re-establishing a social life after the death of his wife. Dan and his daughters take a trip to see their extended family at a sprawling, creaky Rhode Island beach house; it will offer Dan the chance to see his parents (the excellent John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) and siblings (best brother Mitch, Dane Cook) as well as possibly take a mental break from all of the distractions he's facing at home and with his newspaper job (he's a popular columnist who's up for national syndication; his column shares the movie's title). But, as if I needed to tell you, there won't be much relaxation on this family vacation for Dan.
Things get complicated when Dan meets the lovely Marie, played by the radiant and adorable Juliette Binoche. Their "meet-cute" in a quaint little bookstore was almost too cute for me, but the two actors have such genuine chemistry that the schmaltz washed down easily. Dan's smitten by her charms immediately; Marie is obviously interested in him as well. But...and here's the big, hairy butt of the movie...Marie is already seeing someone...Dan's brother Mitch. Of course, Dan doesn't learn this fact until after he says his book-shop goodbye to Marie and she's introduced to his entire family back at the cottage as Mitch’s girlfriend. Will Dan steal his brother's girlfriend? Will Marie be able to choose between the two suitors? Will anyone be happy by the story's conclusion?
DAN IN REAL LIFE is a cut-above for romantic comedies for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I actually cared about the main character and wanted to see him triumph. Whereas in countless romantic comedies the male leads are either annoying or stupid, Dan is engaging and very likable. There's an air of melancholy that hangs over the film as a result of the loss of Dan's wife which weights and grounds the film in a deeper framework for the entire story. Not as depressed as his character was in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, Dan is still the sad-sack gentleman, and Carell demonstrates his mastery of this character. Already one of the funniest comedians on the planet (his work in THE OFFICE is the stuff of instant legend), Carell has proven himself in the last two years as a considerable dramatic performer as well. It must also be said that the dreaded Dane Cook (I have never been a fan of his loud, obnoxious, clichéd, repetitive shtick) gives a charming, dialed-down supporting performance; cut loose from his normal shenanigans, he's funny and sweet in equal measure. It also helps that Binoche, as the woman the two brothers are jostling over, has never seemed as attainable or free spirited as she does in DAN IN REAL LIFE; you’ll agree she's worth fighting over. It's also worth mentioning that the sexy Emily Blunt, who walked away with every scene she appeared in during THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, has a fun cameo as well.
I loved the small bits of physical comedy, the heart-tugging scenes with Dan and his daughters (all of whom steal all of their scenes), the way that small story details came full circle by the end of the movie, and the...gasp...happy ending. Movies like DAN IN REAL LIFE are tough for me to get into, because most of the time, they feel manufactured and derivative. Not here. Everyone in the cast is given a chance to shine in either small or big ways, and the free-wheeling screenplay gets a lot of mileage out of the trappings of the extended-family-in-a-big-house setting that has been seen before in other films of this sort. It's just that this time, the family in question, is one that feels familiar and real. DAN IN REAL LIFE is a breath of fresh air in a fall movie season of dark, brooding dramas, and the best movie of it's kind of the year.