Attempting to capitalize on the successes of his starring and co-starring roles in the quirky little comedies "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell came back in 2007 with another little comedy, this one a traditional romantic comedy called "Dan in Real Life." It hasn't got quite the edge that his previous two movies had, but it still passes a pleasant hour and a half or more.
Carell plays Dan Burns, an advice columnist for a Boston newspaper who can answer other people's personal questions easily enough but is unable to negotiate the byroads of his own relationships. He's a widower with three daughters: Lilly (Marlene Lawston), the youngest, about ten; Cara (Brittany Robertson), the next youngest, about fifteen; and Jane (Alison Pill), the oldest, about seventeen. Naturally, they're all mad at him for one thing or another: Lilly because he's not giving her enough attention; Cara because he won't let her date a boy she's known for only three weeks and with whom she's fallen in love; and Jane because he won't let her drive the family car.
The story is set during an annual family reunion they take with Dan's parents and siblings at the parents' rambling waterfront home on the Eastern seaboard. Now, here's the twist: On the first day of the visit, Dan goes into the local village and meets a woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche), in a bookstore. Clearly, he falls in love with her at first sight. They part, and just moments later they meet again at Dan's parents' house. She is the girlfriend of Dan's brother, Mitch (Dane Cook)!
Co-written (with Pierce Gardner) and directed by Peter Hedges (who also directed "Pieces of April" and wrote "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "A Map of the World," and "About a Boy"), the movie presents a fascinating dilemma for both Dan and Marie. They can't help flirting with each other, yet they also know they can't betray the brother. How to be true and honest and do the right thing? And what exactly is the right thing? Since the death of his wife, Dan has organized and arranged his life to cope with his new existence. Now, into his well-ordered world comes this new and wonderful thing. A thing seemingly, frustratingly, just out of his reach.
"Dan in Real Life" isn't a laugh-out-loud comedy, although there are a couple of good chuckles along the way; nor is it a straight-out romance. It is a romantic comedy in the traditional sense, and it has all the conventional trappings of a romantic comedy. Most of all, it is gently funny and it is sweetly romantic. The two key ingredients work, despite neither Carell nor Binoche having a particularly strong chemistry together. It works because the writing is sharp, the situations are most often believable, the pace is quick and lively, and the actors (including Diane Wiest and John Mahoney as the parents) know what they're doing and get the job done.
This is not to suggest that the movie doesn't have its fair share of drawbacks, at least for me. The scene where Dan and Marie meet in a bookstore doesn't entirely ring true. The comedy turns bitter at one point, momentarily, and then to bittersweet. A scene in a shower is just plain silly and appears to belong in a different picture altogether. Yet another scene, this one at a bowling alley, turns schmaltzy before turning on a monumental coincidence. Then the climactic scene gets much too melodramatic for its own good, and the daughters tend to pile on a bit too much, even for comedy. Ah, well, only in the movies, I suppose.
The movie is also remarkably predictable as it marches toward its inevitable conclusion. Still, like all good romantic comedies, it leaves you charmed and happy and maybe a little teary-eyed before it's over.
"Dan in Real Life" celebrates family and love. It contains no sex, no violence, no profanity. And it accomplishes its purpose with hardly any cloying sentimentality (except that bit at the end I mentioned). Who can knock that?
The film looks extremely good in its original theatrical ratio, 1.85:1, anamorphic transfer. The standard-definition image quality is excellent. The colors are rich and deep. The black levels can be intense. And facial detail in close-ups is outstanding. Of minor note, the picture can get a tad dark at times, and some medium shots are a touch soft. However, it's quite good all the way around.
The movie mainly calls upon the audio to reproduce dialogue and music, which the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does with ease. It's got a wide front-channel spread, a nice ambient bloom to the music, and occasionally, not often, there are even a few rear-channel effects--a door slamming, some dishes clinking. Voices are anchored out in the center channel, but that's common to most new movies.
There is a decent set of extras on the disc, although most of it is of the garden variety. Things start with an audio commentary by the writer/director, Peter Hedges. Then we get a typical making-of featurette, the fifteen-minute "Just Like Family: The Making of Dan in Real Life." A second featurette, "Handmade Music: Creating the Score," ten minutes, is actually a bit more revealing, telling how the director wanted the music to be like a character in the movie. Three minutes of outtakes don't amount to much, but the eleven deleted scenes, about twenty minutes' worth, with optional commentary by Hedges, are the best part of the bonus materials.
The extras conclude with fourteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at six other Buena Vista products; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired; and a handsomely embossed slipcover.
OK, I admit I went into "Dan in Real Life" with some reservations. Frankly, the last few years have not been kind to romantic comedies, and I wasn't expecting the level of humor and sentiment the movie delivered. Or maybe I'm just a sucker when a romantic comedy is this well made. I wound up enjoying most of what I saw, despite its familiarity and predictability. The film's got a good heart.