Dan in Real Life is one of those movies that doesn’t swing for the fences, and is much better off for it. I love Steve Carell, (even if the last few episodes of the Office have been slight misfires) but I was a little worried that he might be headed into slump after Evan Almighty tanked. Thankfully, the man seems to be back on his game in this emotionally complex and funny film.
Carell plays the titular Dan, a columnist who dispenses slightly cliched Dr. Phillian common-sense family advice even as the widowed father finds his relationship with his daughters straining under the weight of teenage rebellion and the advances of paperboys. The movie plays out over a long weekend family gathering, when Dan takes his three daughters to the bustling lakehouse where the entire family comes together. On the first day, Dan has a bookstore meet-cute with the exotic Marie (Juliette Binoche). He opens up to her over coffee and a muffin, and although she seems a little conflicted, he ends up getting her number before she runs off. He soon sees her again when his brother (played with surprisingly un-annoyingly by Dane Cook) introduces her as his new girlfriend.
The film follows the discomfort and awkwardness as Dan and Marie try to repress their attraction to one another and hide their connection from the rest of the extended family. Dan in Real Life is a comedy, but its not the ostentatious kind of showy humor that makes you laugh out loud at films like Knocked Up or Wedding Crashers. It’s more understated than quips and quotable one-liners. It grows from the interaction of the characters and the emotions that they have trouble keeping under wraps as the plot progresses.
The humor feels organic and pleasant because it relies on empathy and an understanding of the family dynamics we can read into the way Dan’s mother talks to him, say. But this no weepy schmaltz-fest, either. You feel a real pathos for Dan and just how lonely and sad he feels, but it never gets too mushy or overly sentimental. The balance between the drama and humor is effortless. It would have been easy for a lesser director to drift into farce or melodrama, but Peter Hedges does a wonderful job of Keeping Dan in Real Life grounded. But you still know that when you see Steve Carell playing football on the lawn, he will be smacked in the head with a flying pigskin. And I’m okay with that.
The film has a compressed feel to it, taking place largely in a single location and playing out over a long weekend. This gives it a very stage-y feel (in a good way). I suspect Dan in Real Life started out as a play, and at some point made the jump to the big screen. I’m glad it did.