Dan Burns is a widowed advice columnist with three daughters. Hmmm… My Three Daughters? No, not nearly. Dan in Real Life is an old-fashioned, family-friendly comedy with genuine heart and some new nuances for what should’ve been a formulaic flick.
It’s been several years since Dan Burns’ [Steve Carell] wife died and he seems to be happily adjusted to a life that centers on three daughters [seventeen-year old Jane Allison Pill], who is just itching to drive; Cara [Brittany Robertson], fifteen and in the throws of first love, and Lilly [Marlene Lawston], about ten, and easily the most sensible sister] and his advice column – which just may be getting syndicated.
As they prepare to head off to an annual family get-together, we see Dan, in highly organized mode, distributing laundry [and wondering at a thong], fixing food, making sure packing is done and fending off would-be driver Jane while trying to convince Cara that what she’s feeling isn’t love. Lilly, of course, is following directions and is ready before everyone else.
The family get-together is the usual semi-dysfunctional to-do, and Dan, who is the only single adult, is assigned the Dan tries to sleep. While the others try to figure out how to get Dan into the dating world, he is told to get lost for awhile and, in that process, meets Marie [Juliette Binoche] in the local Book * Tackle Store, where she mistakes him for an employee and solicits his advice on some reading material [her exacting and exasperating description of what she’s looking for is the first real that Dan in Real Life is something more than just an old-fashioned, romantic comedy]. Naturally, the two are attracted – but she’s in a relationship – with his brother, Mitch [Dane cook], it turns out.
The film may follow most of the conventions of such comedies [the family bickering; the way Dan’s mom [Dianne Wiest] sets him on a fateful blind date; Cara’s boyfriend follows her to her grandparents’ home, etc.], but what sets it apart is the way in which Dan comes to realize that love is love, whether it’s Cara’s first love, or what he’s felt from the moment he met Marie.
Sure, there’s the ironic moment when Dan realizes that he hasn’t been paying attention to the advice he’s given others, and there’s pratfall off the roof as he sneaks away from an embarrassing moment in a shower – and you have to know that Jane’s desire to drive will pay off. Even the scenes with the cop have a payoff that is, if not original, exquisitely timed. And the inevitable moment where Dan and Mitch have to deal…
One of the reasons Dan in Real Life works is that writers Peter Hedges [who also directed] and Pierce Gardner have treated in a way that makes it feel fresh and new. The gags rise naturally from the situations and there are very few actual punchlines. The humor comes with the realization that we’ve all been in similar situations – whether it’s Cara’s desperate desire to be with her boyfriend, or being the odd adult out in a family gathering where every other adult is married. We know how these situations should feel and the writers do, too.
That said, there are a few things that keep Dan in Real Life from being a masterpiece – besides the familiarity of the situations. The pacing is a bit awkward at times, and the setting is a bit grim [it’s autumn, I would guess from the grey skies and intermittent rain]. But some of the film’s best moments will make the audience squirm with remembered embarrassments [we’ve all suffered through a family talent show like this one] and laugh at the same time. And, of course, in a film about family, flaws and True Love, the dysfunctional family will pull together to support Dan; seeming flaws will be seen in a new light, and True Love will win out.
In a movie like this, it’s not the plot that matters. It’s the way the characters are given nuances by its cast and director. Carell shows us the wonder of love being rekindled after accepting the possibility it might never happen again. Robertson reminds us of the pain of parental refusal to accept first love as real. Even the usually awful Dane Cook is not hateful, here, as he manages to make Mitch almost sympathetic.
Dan in Real Life isn’t a big, flashy, crude comedy with a heart, it’s a quiet little comedy that sneaks up on us with its affection for its characters and its willingness to bring real emotion to what has become an almost forgotten genre.
Final Grade: B