The Good: Good acting, Good use of tone, Interesting characters
The Bad: Recycled plot, One big conceit
The Basics: A surprisingly smart, funny and touching film, Dan In Real Life suffers from being a movie we've seen before with a tone that is nothing short of oppressive.
It did not take long in watching Dan In Real Life before the movie began to feel remarkably familiar to me. As an avid cinephile and reviewer, I watch a lot of movies. Most films do their best to differentiate themselves, especially from movies that have been in theaters and out on DVD in proximity. So, I was a bit surprised when I sat down to the DVD of Dan In Real Life how closely it resembled The Family Stone (reviewed here!). In terms of the plot, they are essentially the same movie, with the genders of the lead protagonist reversed.
The thing is, despite how similarly the plots resemble one another and how familiar Dan In Real Life seemed, I found myself enjoying it. The tone of the movie, to be sure, is oppressive and very overwhelming and consistent, but it works. With Steve Carell leading an impressive cast of known quantities and new (surprisingly talented) young people, Dan In Real Life works as a very complete and compelling film. Carell continues to impress me, while the female lead of The Family Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker, I find myself more indifferent to.
Dan Burns is raising his three daughters, the oldest of which is learning to drive and the middle girl who has declared she is in love with a boy in her class. Dan and his daughters are headed to his parent's house in the country for a long weekend of family reuniting. Taking a break from his family, Dan goes to a small bookstore where he loads a woman up with books and has a delightful coffee and conversation with her. Returning home, he discovers the woman - Marie - is actually the girlfriend of his brother, Mitch. Dan and Marie tiptoe around one another, very aware of the chemistry they shared.
Things become complicated for Dan when Cara's boyfriend continues to pursue her even to his parent's house, he observes Marie bonding with his youngest daughter, and he realizes that the only thing that truly excites him is Marie. Trying to be respectful of Mitch, Dan struggles to repress his feelings, which leads to humorous and painful incidents that open his eyes back up to love.
Peter Hedges, who directed About A Boy (reviewed here!) directed and co-wrote Dan In Real Life, and more than anything else, this movie proves he is a master of tone. Dan In Real Life is an extraordinarily difficult movie to watch in that it is depressing and steadily, unrelentingly driven by Dan's melancholy. Hedges did a great job with such feelings in About A Boy and here he applies that same sense of being detached from the world to Dan in a way that works, even if it is not the easiest thing to sit through and watch.
That said, Dan In Real Life is surprisingly engaging. It comes with one essential fault, though. Dan Burns and Marie essentially fall in love over one conversation, something Dan denies as a possibility when it applies to his daughter, Cara. Dan's world comes alive and the conversation brings him an energy and enthusiasm that is palpable. Steve Carell's performance in that single scene effectively transforms his character through his mastery of body language and his ability to express emotions with his eyes. Carell is perfectly cast and in that scene, he takes his slouching, drooping-eyelid character and makes him into a gently smiling, cerebral, charming suitor. And it works.
The fault, though, comes in the strength of that in the overall narrative. Marie and Mitch have not just started dating and the alluded-to transformation of Mitch from his relationship with Marie undermines the concept of the strength of the Dan/Marie connection. In other words, all of the conflict that ensues as a result of Dan and Marie hitting it off places a great deal of emphasis and importance on a single conversation. That one conversation generates almost all of the character conflict that the film is actually about.
Dan's parents act as a decent moral core and Poppy especially tries to guide Dan toward making his life happier, especially as Dan's column is considered for syndication by a large syndicate. The character of Dan Burns is an intriguing one; a self-help guru who has difficulty keeping his own life in order. This makes perfect sense as people almost always have blind spots and as a result, there is a realism in the establishment of the Dan character.
Similarly, Marie being portrayed as down-to-earth and passionate works well as a dramatic foil to Dan. The connection they have seems very real and scenes like Marie spending time with Lilly adds to their connection. What works at least as well is the torment Dan experiences watching Marie and Mitch playing football together. They play as a very organic couple and Dan's conflict is vivid as a result of his acknowledgment that his infatuation with Marie is not the only consideration.
Sadly, even more than the characters and the essential plot conflict of "Will Marie end up with Mitch or Dan" (which can pretty much be figured by the title of the movie), Dan In Real Life is about establishing a tone. The tone in this film is oppressive, there is no other word for it. Dan is a character who is trapped in the pain of losing his wife, whose existence seems to revolve around memorializing her in raising the daughters they had together. Even after Marie enters his life, he does not transform significantly. Instead, he is left with more conflict and there is something droll about that.
Carell does wonders at establishing that mood, but it is difficult to watch and be entertained by a character who is so unrelentingly miserable. It works for the story and the story is compelling, but it is not entertaining. Enlightenment is not always entertaining, but the way Dan In Real Life is overwhelmingly and completely oppressive in its level to depressed mood, only proves the point.
What makes Carell ideal for the role of Dan Burns is that he has an ability to play the part with hints of the potential of who Burns might be when happy. Yes, he has wit and he has the ability to restrain it, yet let it out in careful doses that allude to who he was before all of his loss. There is, for example, no hint of his performance from Little Miss Sunshine in his portrayal of Dan. While both characters are depressed, Dan has a very different melancholy working for him and Carell makes that clear through his performance.
Carell's costar Juliette Binoche is adequate and she and Carell have great chemistry to make the conflict between Dan and Marie real. Binoche is a great love interest but she does not do anything exceptional with her character that she has not done in some of her other performances in similar roles, like in Chocolat.
On DVD, Dan In Real Life is not exactly packed with extras, but it does have pretty much what is expected from a comedy or dramedy on DVD. There is an insightful commentary track and there are deleted scenes with optional commentary as well. As well, there is a featurette on the making of the movie which allows some of the actors to have a voice in the behind-the-scenes commentary as well. They are interesting and this is real nice for those who want more than just the movie with its depressing tone.
And despite the tone, Dan In Real Life works exceptionally well as a movie and it is worth seeing, though I am on the fence about owning it. Is it good enough to be bought? For sure! But I have a pretty heavy collection of DVDs and this one does what it sets out to do very well, making me wonder how much more depression my collection needs.
For other movies featuring Steve Carell that I've reviewed, please check out:
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Little Miss Sunshine
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy
Check out how this film stacks up against all the others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where film reviews are organized from best to worst movie!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |