Immediately after screening Peter Hedges’ Dan in Real Life I found myself defending the film. Well, what I said was, “It’s not that bad” to the five people who screened it with me, all of whom were calling it “painful.” However, the more I’ve thought about the film, the more I’m inclined to embrace their viewpoint, though perhaps not for quite the same reasons. For me, a lot of what makes Dan in Real Life painful stems from the fact that parts of the film—even substantial parts of it—are good. The problem is that these parts are drowned in a sea that’s two-parts molasses to one-part pure eyewash.
Generally, whenever Dan Burns (Steve Carell) and Marie (Juliette Binoche) share the screen, the film at least partly works. There are also some laughs to be had from the subplot involving Dan’s middle daughter, Jane (Alison Pill, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen), and her overwrought passion for her forbidden boyfriend, Marty (TV actor Felipe Dieppa). Better still, these scenes—absurd as they are—are handled by people who obviously remember and understand full well how important overheated drama is to a 14-year-old.
The premise is sound enough. Dan, a long-grieving widower, falls in love with a woman (Binoche) in a bookshop only to discover that she’s his brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) girlfriend. It’s not too exciting, but it’s a reasonable romantic-comedy setup. Casting the innately unsympathetic Dane Cook as the brother is conceptually shrewd. In practical application, however, the film scuttles the shrewdness by trying—with marginal success—to make Cook more palatable than usual, only to do a quick about-face to conclude that he’s as shallow and unsympathetic as the average Cook character.
Unfortunately, sharp shifts in tone are pretty common throughout the film. For every good, emotionally honest scene between Carell and Binoche, the film throws in two-scenes worth of clumsy, uninspired slapstick. And when it isn’t doing that, it goes all hot, soft and wooly with maudlin sentiment involving Carell and his three screen daughters. The worst part about the slapstick aspect is that it’s usually given over to Carell, and it’s always at odds with his character in every other instance. It feels like the filmmakers were determined to remind us that Carell’s supposed to be funny.
But what really sinks the movie for me is the fact that it’s ultimately a kind of all-white (and all-white-bread) Tyler Perry movie minus the religiosity. The film mostly takes place at some kind of forced family gathering in one of those vacation homes so beloved of upscale folks in movies, and not only do we have Dan and his three children, Mitch and his girlfriend, but Mom (Dianne Wiest), Dad (John Mahoney, TV’s Frasier), assorted (and never very specific) other siblings and their offspring as well. Each and every one of these people seems to have wandered into the movie straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog, and they all comport themselves as if they’re in a movie. It’s all too faux cozy. These people do everything together, whether it’s endless bouts of charades, aerobic exercising, impromptu talent shows (by people with no discernible talent), crossword puzzles or, presumably, tiddledywinks tournaments (though this last somehow failed to make it into the script). Even the Beaver Cleaver clan wasn’t this chummy. I suppose it’s all meant to be heartwarming, but it struck me as downright creepy in its forced bonhomie. If these people actually existed, I’d suggest avoiding contact for fear of contracting terminal insipidity.
The odd thing is, though, that one of the film’s most effective scenes—thanks to Binoche and Carell—occurs during one of these displays of familial plasticity. It’s one of the most chuckleheaded passages in the movie; there’s no way to excuse the rampaging silliness of Mitch opting to serenade Marie by singing a song—Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door”—when he doesn’t even know the words. But there’s no denying that Dan taking over for him and Marie’s reaction to the song make that matter very little. And, yes, the whole scene—like so much in the film—feels a little derived from another source (Will Ferrell singing Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” in last year’s Stranger Than Fiction), but here in this one instance, Dan in Real Life has the emotional resonance it so desperately desires. Too bad more of the movie isn’t on this level. Rated PG-13 for some innuendo.