Review: Dan in Real Life (2007)
- From: "Jonathan Moya" <jjmoya1955@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 02 Nov 2007 09:32:56 -0400
Dan in Real Life
A Movie Review by Jonathan Moya
Rating: B or 3 out of 5
Don't get me wrong. I love my family to death. It is always the highlight of my year when we come together in Hulls Cove, an extension of the Mount Dessert Island town of Bar Harbor, Maine for the annual family reunion (this year it was a Caribbean cruise) at my dad's big sunlit modern house with its fireplace that almost reaches heaven and the fabulous view it has of Frenchman Bay, its nature trails artfully cleared that lead to an almost natural looking pond, its gatehouse filled with the tumble of grandkids and antic moms and dads, and its cottage with a Japanese rock garden and trellises full of locally grown flora that find their way into pots and vases in all the houses. The cottage was reclaimed from the ruins of what use to be an old stable and/or servants quarters. Before it was built, it use to be an old "haunted house" that the grownup kids use to shine flashlights in at night to scare the be Jesus out of the little ones watching from the safe distance of the gate house porch as the ghosts of Tranquility (the name of the main house) moaned and reflected their ectoplasmic existence. But I'm a big city person, and after about four days of Tranquility and family togetherness I would be looking for a little insanity by escaping to a movie, Bangor or across the Bay of Fundy to Yarmouth Nova Scotia via the high speed Cat which runs twice a day in season. After the seventh day I was ready to go home.
Dan in Real Life is a romance buried in a family reunion picture. Meaning there is a lot of Dan but very little of what I know as real life.
The original draft written by Pierce Gardner was inspired by all the summer vacations he spent with his wife's extended family in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I suspect it was intended to be a funny little independent film filled with the explosions and reconciliations of sibling rivalry, dirt dishing, wayward relatives sneaking some rule breaking with the children of their sibs, all punctuated with family outings that leveled everyone to a sobbing, blubbering pile of conscience stricken guilt seeking a group hug. At least, that is what my family reunions were all about.
When the screenplay warranted a bigger studio treatment Peter Hedges (screenwriter for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, and the underrated Pieces of April- which he also directed) was asked to do the rewrite and perform the directing chores. Hedges strips the burrs of family contention to plane the romance.
Dan Burns is played by Steve Carell with two degrees less of the usual Carell antics. Think of his depressed Proust scholar from Little Miss Sunshine properly medicated and level.
Burns a widower of four years is a writer who drafts the title column in the fifteen minutes of quiet time not devoted to taking care of his three daughters, which he does with zealous protectiveness. Jane (the aptly named Alison Pill) bugs dad about learning how to drive. Cara (Brittany Robertson) annoys dad with her constant jonesing to be with her first boyfriend. To her, Dan is just "a murderer of love." Lily, the baby (Marlene Lawston) is just lucky if she gets Dan attention. Since Dan fears for their mortality, their budding sexuality and his own sanity he keeps his daughters in a constant state of grounding and prohibition. He is a "good father, but sometimes a bad dad", one of his kids exclaims.
Hedges is content to leave the daughters as tics, having them fidgeting to life whenever the plot requires complication- the boyfriend that shows up 100 miles north, in the physical film space of here is here, when he should be 100 miles south in the world of over there; the daughter who just happens to have her learner's permit and the keys when Daddy isn't allowed to drive.
In the alternative Hedges screenplay, the ones he use to write when the winds were brusque and the sailing not always smooth, Jane would be tooling down the dirt road in the old Town and Country-- sitting on her wayward Uncle's lap with him at the foot controls and she in control of the steering wheel (a true incident), and Cara would find sisterly solace in a back porch confidential that might involve a little weed (not so true incident).
Dan in Real Life could be Philadelphia for all the brotherly love it displays. Dan has three brothers, all of which he adores, but one of which he seems to have any extended conversations with- his brother Mitch (a less annoying Dane Cook). The other two exist to take up the other bedrooms in their parents rambling paneled to the gills Rhode Island beach house, remaindering Dan to the "special room" occupied with a cot and an old clanking washing machine.
The Burns are into doing speed crossword challenges segregated by sex, group aerobics, and pretty awful talent shows, in which Dan is excused from participating. "Get lost- it is not a request", his mom (Dianne Wiest) smilingly demands of Dan, putting his lameness in quotes.
In the solitude of the local book and tackle shop, Dan meets Marie who is looking for a book on dealing with awkward situations. Since she is played by Juliette Binoche, Marie is wistfully intelligent, winsomely sexy, and soothingly beautiful.
"I am looking for something not necessarily hahaha laugh out loud funny, something human funny" she purrs.
Whenever a screenwriter expresses his writing credo you know that love can't be far behind. Dan knowing a good line when he hears it-- is instantly smitten to pour out his soul, his life, his very heart to her over coffee and the most malformed muffin ever to grace the screen. And she is charmed enough to give him her number despite the warning she is involved.
Unfortunately it turns out to be Mitch.
Dan being a nice guy first follows denial, then out and out contempt, before all the accidental face to faces on the football field, in the shower, in the special room and the kitchen (where he is condemned to eat burnt pancakes in front of the withering glare of Marie) crumble his brotherly-family resolve- and force him to go for the gusto of life staring him in the face.
Mitch as a consolation ends up with "pig-faced" Irene (Emily Blunt) the ugly duckling turned swan and successful plastic surgeon with a racy red convertible.
Binoche who won an Oscar for the English Patient and is use to appearing in the unbearable lightness of being of French and old continental drama glories in her chance to play something lightweight-something that allows her to display her deft touch and timing, her guileless charm to full effect. She is jus the anchor that Dan needs. Her bumbling, closeted humanity waiting to be outed makes Dan in real life a joy.
Carell is becoming a capable romantic lead. The tics that use to make one producer exclaim that Carell has the looks of a serial killer are almost gone. He is getting less precious with every movie. Dan Burns is probably Carell's most balanced and believable performance.
Real Life is Peter Hedges-lite. The film lacks the antic joyfulness and disruption, the earnest biting humanity that made Pieces of April a heartfelt charmer. But then life and death and the whole family mess isn't involved either. It is content to be soothingly pleasant. It stands out in this summer of foul-mouthed comedies with heart like Knocked Up and Superbad. With just a little more complexity and attention to the family side Dan in Real Life could have been a little more real and livelier.
For what it is and what it could have been Dan in Real Life gets a B.
Directed by Peter Hedges; written by Pierce Gardner and Mr. Hedges; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Sarah Flack; music by Sondre Lerche; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by Jon Shestack and Brad Epstein; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 95 minutes.
WITH: Steve Carell (Dan), Juliette Binoche (Marie), Dane Cook (Mitch), Alison Pill (Jane), Brittany Robertson (Cara), Marlene Lawston (Lilly), Emily Blunt (Ruthie), Amy Ryan (Eileen), Norbert Leo Butz (Clay), Dianne Wiest (Nana) and John Mahoney (Poppy).
"Dan in Real Life" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some sexually suggestive situations.
Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya
Home | New Reviews | Now on DVD | Archives
- Prev by Date: Review: Juggernaut (1974)
- Next by Date: Review: Gone Baby Gone (2007)
- Previous by thread: Review: Juggernaut (1974)
- Next by thread: Review: Gone Baby Gone (2007)