Dan In Real Life
One of the trickiest genres for a film maker to pull off is also generally considered one of the most innocuous; the romantic comedy. Films of this type rarely make a splash during the all important award season. They are viewed as light entertainment at their best and at their worse just plain old silly. The thing is they tend to be a great vehicle to make actors into household names. Just look at Rock Hudson and Doris Day in the late fifties and early sixties, they both became wildly popular because of their romantic comedies. Now a new actor is reaching the exalted ‘A-List’ because of this genre, Steve Carell. He first came to the attention of many people as a ‘reporter’ on the Comedy Central satirical news series, ‘The Daily Show’. After such films as ’40 year Old Virgin’ and the very popular television series ‘The Office’ he is hitting it big time. In many ways he is reminiscent of Jack Lemmon. They share a certain ‘every man’ quality that makes them appealing to audiences. The men can identify with them and the woman get that lost puppy affection going. Lemmon transitioned his romantic comedy work into award winning dramas and Carell has the potential to do the same. His latest film to make it to DVD is ‘Dan in Real Life’. It is technically a comedy, drama and a romance all rolled in one. While this is all too often a combination that falls flat this film works due largely to the talent of Carell in the lead.
This film does have a reasonable pedigree going for it. Peter Hedges directed and co-wrote the film with style. This is his second time out as director; his first film being the melodramatic ‘Pieces of April’back in 2003 which he also penned. That film did feature the actress Allison Pill who also appears in this film. It’s nice to see a director you is loyal to previous cast members. As a writer he has a little more in his resume. He wrote ‘What's Eating Gilbert Grape’ which was a breakout film for both Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. He also wrote ‘A Map of the World’ which while not overly successful did demonstrate that Hedges is able to write scenes that reinforce the talents of the actors. His partner for the script here was Pierce Gardner. His only other screenplay was ‘Lost Souls’ which was an average satanic horror flick. The basic plot here is a man recently widowed goes to a family reunion and is taken by a beautiful woman he happens to meet in town. Of course as things always happen in romantically inclined films she has a boyfriend who just happens to be the man’s brother. In less talented hands than Hedges this plot would strain the realm of believability to the breaking point. Accepting the premise does take a good dose of suspension of belief on the part of the audience but the exceptional cast and smart dialogue carry the film. There is a humanity contained in this story that more than makes up for the almost ridiculous and hackney premise. If this movie was presented only as a comedy it would have fallen flat. The infusion of the right touch of drama makes it worth watching.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell) works as a columnist for a local paper. His column, ‘Dan in Real Life’ is a humorous look at the trials and tribulation of regular life. Of late it has been difficult for Dan to write. Four years ago his wife died and he is still in a state of deep mourning for her. He now has to raise his three daughters on his own. There is the eldest 17 year old Jane (Alison Pill), 14 year old Cara (Brittany Robertson) and the youngest at 9 little Lilly (Marlene Lawston). They are typical kids with the usual points of contention with their dad. Jane wants to drive everywhere, Cara demands permission to start dating and bad for her dad but he is so uncool. Dan and the girls are not exactly getting along when it comes time for the semiannual trip to visit the grandparents in Rhode Island. It is the time of year when the extended family visits Nana (Dianne Wiest) and Poppy (John Mahoney) get their cabin closed up and ready for the coming winter. Carla is the most resistant to taking the trip. She tries to argue that she can’t miss school because of her studies. Considering the thong Dan found in her laundry and the ‘You Wish’ written on the butt of her pants dad is certain that a boy is the real motivation for his middle daughter’s reluctance. Once up at the cabin the Burns family is reunited including Dan’s younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook). He has always been better in social situations than Dan. While Dan works at home writing Mitch is in contact with people working as a fitness instructor.
Dan feels out of place with the family so he decides to go into town to be alone. He wanders into a used book store where he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche). She has such a friendly and open manner to her that for the first time since his wife died Dan begins to feel a spark of being alive again. Dan becomes, as we used to say, smitten with Marie. After the bookstore they both go out for a quick bite to eat. It is not as if either on was coming on to the other, they were just innocently enjoying each other’s company. The complication is Marie is there visiting with her boyfriend, Mitch. At one point Nana tries to set Dan up with a blind date. The young woman Ruthie Draper (Emily Blunt) is a doctor, sexy and way out of Dan’s league. Going out with her begins to stir some feelings on conflict and even jealousy with Marie much to the chagrin of Mitch.
Steve Carell has certainly found his niche in film. After several films playing the second banana for the outrageous and raunchy comic actor Will Ferrell he is now opening a film that is worth seeing. He has mastered the art of quiet humor. This is not a film with slap your knees jokes. The humor comes from a deeper more human place. We laugh because Carell allows us to empathize with Dan. He makes his character believable; it is not all humor here either. There are moments when Carell allows the audience to see several sides of his character. He is in many ways a tragic man; still deeply in love with his late wife. He still sleeps on one side of the bed and goes through the motions of keeping his household intact. Dan has to deal with the growing concerns of teenage rebellion on his own; a man not able to fully understand that his daughters are growing into young women. His previous films established Carell as a comedian, this film shows he is also an actor.
The film is brought to DVD by Buena Vista/Disney. It is family friendly with a PG-13 rating. There are both regular widescreen DVD and Blu-ray versions available. The video is a crisp, clean anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. The Dolby 5.1 audio is naturally light on the sub woofer but provides excellent channel separation and ambience. There are several extras provided on the disc. There is a commentary track with Peter Hedges that is entertaining and informative. Outtakes and deleted scenes are provided. There is a making of featurette that is pretty standard and a look at the creation of the score. This is a gentle, humorous film that is worth adding to your collection.