Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest
Peter Hedges and Pierce Gardner
I learned two things while watching "Dan in Real Life," the latest film from director and co-writer Peter Hedges (writer/director of "Pieces of April" and writer of such scripts as "About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?").
First, I learned that Oscar winner Juliette Binoche is an amazing actress who can turn even the most thinly drawn characters into inviting, appealing and sympathetic human beings.
Secondly, I learned that Steve Carell, cinematic comedy's "Man of the Hour" isn't quite ready for the dramatic big leagues yet despite his winning supporting performance in "Little Miss Sunshine."
Oh, wait. I learned something else. I learned that Dane Cook still can't act.
No surprises there, though.
In "Dan in Real Life," Carell plays Dan Burns, a popular advice columnist whose wife died four years earlier and whose days are filled now largely not following his own advice while raising three spirited young girls, Jane (Alison Pill), Cara (Brittany Robertson) and Lilly (Marlene Lawston).
As is family tradition, Dan heads off with his girls to an annual Fall family reunion at his parent's Rhode Island home (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney). The next day, Mama Burns commands Dan to go off for some alone time and, while at a local bookstore/bait shop he meets and immediately strikes up one of THOSE conversations with the charming Marie (Juliette Binoche)...you know the conversations. It's the kind of conversation that feels timeless and never-ending and replays in your mind over and over again. Alas, Marie must eventually run off to meet her new boyfriend and, after innocently giving Dan her phone number, they part.
A few minutes later, Dan arrives back at his parent's home where his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook) introduces his new girlfriend...yep, it's Marie.
This simple storyline is played out with an almost unheard of gentleness as Hedges portrays the Burns family with a high degree of normalcy.
Dan, despite his obvious grief and even more obvious dysfunctions, is deeply loved by his family.
Likewise, Mitch is a good guy who sort of looks up to his older brother and professes to being in love for the first time.
Marie herself, the stranger of the bunch, quickly wins over the family with her intelligence, wit and sensitive nature.
There are no bad guys here...simply authentic, honest emotions and an incredibly awkward situation.
Many writers and directors would proceed to take the winning premise and either go over-the-top with the comedy and sexual awkwardness, paint someone as the bad guy or, most irritatingly of all, turn it all into a greeting card with the all too predictable happy ending.
While "Dan in Real Life" does, indeed, have about the happiest and most realistic ending one could expect from such a film, the script from Hedges and Pierce Gardner never stoops to manipulative emotions or unnecessarily dramatic situations to make its points.
Instead, Hedges trusts the inherent awkwardness of the simple storyline as a family gathering plays out through games of charades, family dinners, intimate discussions and more. While the notes that are played are remarkably simple, they remain remarkably true to the spirit of the film.
Carell is essentially playing a mix of his characters in "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Little Miss Sunshine," minus, of course, the overt suicidal gesturing in the latter. Carell, as virtually all of America knows, is a funny man and grounds his character in his trademark vulnerable humor. Where Carell falls just a touch short is in his inability to translate that vulnerability into more believable expressions of love and regret where his children are concerned. This is especially noticeable as the film winds down, and as it becomes abundantly clear that his daughters are much wiser than previously given credit. One can almost sense, at times, Carell holding back and, perhaps, afraid of completely surrendering to his character with the emotional vulnerability the film's late scenes really require. It's a modest deficiency, at worst, but more noticeable due to the remarkable vulnerability that Binoche reveals in Marie.
Despite my respect for her acting, I've never really fancied myself a fan of Binoche's work. Yet, Binoche takes the fairly one-note character of Marie and allows her to blossom through her words, her body language, her looks and even her moments of silence. Binoche's Marie is utterly enchanting and beautifully realized.
In all honesty, Dane Cook offers one of his more solid performances as the previously philandering and now in love younger brother. Cook doesn't so much act, it seems, as he simply drops the act (at least until the end).
Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney offer their typically dependable performances as Dan's steady and reliable parents, while Pill, Robertson and Lawston perform nicely as his growing up daughters (though Robertson's "I'm in love" shtick does wear a bit thin by the end of the film).
The lovely Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") is fine in a far too brief supporting role as Ruthie aka "Pig-faced," and the rest of the ensemble cast rarely rings a false note.
"Dan in Real Life" capitalizes wonderfully on the beauty of Rhode Island, and the film's soundtrack from Sondre Lerche is a nice accompaniment.
While "Dan in Real Life" lacks the emotional depth of "Pieces of April," it is a tender, sincere and gently funny film that would make a great family viewing as we enter the holiday season.
It pains me to think that this weekend the absolutely dreadful "Saw IV" will somehow capture the box-office...Why not try something new this weekend? Choose life..."Dan in Real Life."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic