Dan in Real Life was co-written and directed by Peter Hedges, and if the name means nothing to you, the sensibility (yearning, melancholy, gentle) should strike a chord. Hedges began life as a writer on What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy, then moved to the director's chair for the fine Thanksgiving film Pieces of April with Katie Holmes, and now Dan, and if these pictures have anything in common, it's that you probably hate yourself for enjoying them so much. I mean, I definitely do.
He makes studio films that seem like naturalistic independents and independent pictures that play like accessible studio films. And regardless of which is which - and Dan is strictly studio, though shot in real locations, and charming despite itself - they're uniformly self-pitying, contrived, easy-going to the point of torpor, packed with relatively relatable characters and their relatively relatable issues.
Where'd they get this guy?
A filmmaker so ... normal.
Dan even includes a scene where Juliette Binoche wanders a quaint bookstore and explains she wants something "not funny ha-ha-ha, but light funny, more look-up-and-surprise-you funny." Sounds like every conversation I've had with friends about what movie to see. And it's a quaint, pleasant scene, too! That's about as forceful as Hedges feels, as close to a manifesto as this low-impact filmmaker gets. Should they decide to make a live-action Peanuts - when they decide - here's your man.
And when they do, Steve Carell should play every part - Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, the whole gang. He could be 25, could be 45. Carell is ageless, a Pinocchio of an actor, with Bambi eyelashes. Moreover, in Dan in Real Life, and everything he's ever made, from NBC's The Office to The 40-Year Old Virgin to Little Miss Sunshine to his Daily Show dispatches, Carell exudes existential embarrassment - the sort of guy whose clothes fit fine but always appears uncomfortable anyway. (His ennui is too tight.)
As Dan, Carell begins the film with his head in a pillow. He is a widower with three daughters. He's also a newspaper advice columnist - because that's a movie job, no? They drive from New Jersey to his parent's old summer house on the Rhode Island shore for a late-autumn weekend. But he meets the nonplussed Binoche in a bookstore and falls in love, and it's a big thing because he's a widower, but turns out, Juliette is dating his older brother (Dane Cook), and Juliette and Dan keep their attraction quiet - why spoil a family weekend? - and have you seen The Family Stone? Because I love The Family Stone.
And the Stone family had a deaf son who was gay and dating a black guy, as if the filmmakers were aiming for a Blue State trifecta. And they still felt more real than Dan and his unceasingly happy brood. But so what? Because Dan loses his cool and hurt feelings ensue and there are some good actors at the margins here (Alison Pill, Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone, John Mahoney), and does it matter this film was a genteel paid holiday?
They look relaxed.
So on and on it goes until Dan and his brother's girlfriend reveal the attraction, and "How could you!" and "You're my brother!" and so on and so forth, right over a romantic-comedy cliff clearly marked "Caution: Messy situation, but easy resolution ahead."
(P.S. I'd see it again.)
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.
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