Steve Carell .Dan Burns
Dane Cook .Mitch Burns
Juliette Binoche .Marie
Alison Pill .Jane Burns
Brittany Robertson .Cara Burns
Marlene Lawston .Lilly Burns
Diane Wiest .Nana
John Mahoney .Poppy Burns
Touchstone Pictures and Focus Features present Dan in Real Life. Written by Pierce Gardner and Hedges. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some innuendo).
Weeks leading up to the release of Dan in Real Life uneasiness was starting to set in. Advertisements make it out to be a romantic comedy with two brothers opining for the same woman. But something funny happened on the way to the forum. Laughter. Not shake-your-head-in-disgust-funny with vindictive humor or sight gags. This humor is more grownup in nature with reflections of what it means to be a parent.
Steve Carell stars as Dan Burns, a newspaper advice columnist, whose wife passed away four years earlier. Away from the fan mail and computer screen he’s raising three girls on his own and all at different stages, a pre-teen, a seventeen-year-old and a fourth-grader. Such a caring father, you know he’s doing something right when he routinely receives comments like, “I hate you!” At Thanksgiving, the four drive up to Rhode Island and spend a weekend at his parents’ beach house. The rest of the Burns family is there to, including Dan’s younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook).
Mitch is probably the black sheep of the family; he must be adopted, as he looks nothing like the other siblings in the Burns household. When it is suggested that Dan go in to town and take same time for himself and pick up a newspaper while he’s at it he runs into Marie (Juliette Binoche) at the bookstore by the ocean, appropriately named the Book and Tackle Shop. She’s searching for a book and he, looking like an elder stock boy, begins to wander the aisles picking books at random. They strike up a dialog that seems to go on for hours. Dan is enamored and Marie is likewise, but she’s currently in a relationship. Still, she gives him her phone number. Positively glowing back at the beach house, the glow fades later that evening when Mitch introduces his new girlfriend to Dan. Yep, it’s Marie.
In what would be easy story fodder for a network sitcom, Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche rise above the generic plot as writer/director Peter Hedges explores the mixed emotions that love entails. Marie wants to tell Mitch how she feels about Dan, but Dan is just too considerate. As the story progresses, there is a competitiveness in Dan. He tries to outshine his younger bro when it comes to dancing and activities around the house. At the same time he’s alienating Marie; she wants to grow close, but the outpouring of love she gives Mitch is just too much to consume.
The love Dan has for Marie is neither love at first sight nor a carnal desire. At least, it is not apparent in the movie. These are two adults who just happened to meet in a bookstore and who just happen to be perfect for one another. Now Dan has been given a second chance at happiness (with someone his own age). Not many people can say they have won the lottery. With Marie, Dan has done it twice.
Peter Hedges, like John Hughes, must have fond recollections about Thanksgiving. Both directors have used the holiday to tell stories about families. For Hughes it was about a man befriending another as they catch planes, trains and automobiles. Hedges’ feature Pieces of April was a 2003 release that was pretty much overlooked by the masses. It was about a family on Thanksgiving. That plot was a little scatter-brained with Katie Holmes trying to create the perfect Thanksgiving Day meal, and not having much luck, in lieu of her family’s arrival.
Dan in Real Life has some family baggage, but the real focus is romance and the limitations single parents put upon themselves. Hedges doesn’t delve deep with the idea of Dan using parenthood as an excuse when it comes to meeting women. Such a crutch would be too general. Hedges instead uses the love triangle plot device as a means for Dan to realize that parents aren’t perfect. And neither is love. Sometimes there’s a mess that needs cleaning.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):