Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Hedges

Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Roberston, Marlene Lawston, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some innuendo)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 10/26/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I'm always amazed at the way screenwriters establish a complicated scenario and then muck it up by forcing even more complications upon it. It's probably needless to mention that the situation is solved in a ridiculously easy way, too, but I suppose I should (and just did, anyway). That's the major problem with Dan in Real Life, which poses the age-old dilemma of bros vs. hos (sorry for the vernacular, but it's the only appropriate way to simplify an already simple problem) and doesn't bother to make either choice worth the trouble. Instead, the script by Pierce Gardner and director Peter Hedges tosses in more obstacles and situations prevalent in romantic comedies where honesty would settle everything quickly but lying and hiding makes for better affected drama. The screenplay can't balance the familial unity and lovesick discord for which it's going, and as a result, both get a short end of the stick. The movie has its charms, especially the performances, but they're not the charms of family togetherness and finding love after loss that the movie so sappily tries to pound home near the end.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a widower raising three daughters. Jane (Alison Pill), the oldest, wants to drive; Cara (Brittany Robertson), the middle child, wants her dad to understand she's found love; and Lilly (Marlene Lawston), the youngest, thinks her old man is "a good father but sometimes a bad dad." Dan and the girls are off to an annual, large family get-together in Rhode Island at the house of Dan's parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest). Mom convinces him that Dan and his daughters need some space. So Dan heads into town to the tackle and book shop (a concept that amuses me for some unknown reason) where he meets a beautiful woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche), who mistakes Dan for an employee of the store. He's more than obliged to help her find the book(s) she wants, and the two sit down at the pier, drinking tea and eating muffins, while Dan tells her his whole life story. It's a happy meeting, but one that ends too soon (but with a phone number) and with bad news: She has a boyfriend. Upon returning home, Dan tells his family about the woman, and his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) introduces them to his new girlfriend, who happens to be Marie.

What a predicament. It is kind of funny, though, too, and Marie thinks they should just be upfront with Dan's family about the whole thing. Dan vehemently disagrees, primarily for the unspoken reason that he likes Marie. Actually, he has convinced himself that he loves her. What's strange is that Dan and Marie's relationship rarely feels mutual. Even when they first meet, Dan admits to doing all the talking; Marie is a receiver for his problems. Marie might feel some connection to Dan, but from the start, she gives off a "maybe another time, another place" vibe. When she shows up at the house, she seems ready to let the whole thing slide as an ironic twist of fate. Juliette Binoche plays the part as such, and as a result, Dan's obsession seems unhealthy and sometimes downright creepy. He takes her aside to talk about what happened between them, and Marie appears to wonder what he thought happened. Dan takes his family's questioning of his brother's new girlfriend as an opportunity to start bringing up Mitch's past relationships in an attempt to sabotage the whole thing. Mitch plays it off as a good brother should, and tells Dan that he could never be out of line.

Events start to shift a bit, almost as though Gardner and Hedges rewrote Marie's character halfway through. Suddenly, she's attaching to Dan's daughters, and in one scene, a conversation between Marie and Jane somehow results in Dan hiding in the shower with a naked Marie. She becomes jealous when Dan's blind date is described as a pig-face and ends up being Emily Blunt. It becomes pedestrian, and while Binoche, Steve Carell, and Dane Cook (the guy can act, even in an underwritten role like this one, and should stop doing lame comedies) are inherently likeable in their roles, the script's not up to their performances. Some of the early family dynamics are amusing (they do crossword puzzles to determine who will do chores, they all cram into Dan's laundry/bed room to talk about his problems, and they perform a talent show), but they become the basis for syrupy moments (one sister tells Marie that Dan hasn't played guitar since his wife died) and even further strained snags in the conundrum Dan faces. The last act, of course, goes against all of it by finding a resolution that completely ignores the problems and substitutes in easy answers.

I forgot to mention that Dan is a columnist who gives out family advice, but the movie forgets it too, unless it involves people who might syndicate him arriving at the worst possible moment or a final coda that uses his column as a way to sum up what we're supposed to learn. Such things show us that Dan in the Real Life wants to care but can't quite bring itself to do so.

Copyright 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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