A note to all you Steve Carell fans out there, especially the large group of 14 year olds who happened to be in the same theater as I was: “Dan in Real Life” does not contain the raunchy humor of “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” the outrageous, laugh-out-loud humor of “Anchorman,” or the over the top yet subtle humor of “The Office.” If you want to see Steve Carell at his wacky best, go rent “Bruce Almighty” or set your Tivo for Thursday, 9/8 Central and enjoy the greatness of Michael Scott. If, however, you can handle Steve Carell in a serious role, “Dan” is the film for you.
“Dan” is the story of a parenting advice columnist Dan Burns and his three girls, ranging in age from 6 to 16. The Burns have a meager lifestyle, a cluttered house, an old station wagon, and a great deal of conflict and turmoil. Dan’s wife and mother of his children died three years previously which lends itself to a number of problems. At first glance the most glaring issue is the difficulty Dan has in dealing with his daughters, particularly the middle child Cara, perfectly played by Brittany Robertson. Understandably, Dan is a bit over protective and seems to have difficulty allowing for the growth of his children. Below the surface and beautifully illustrated with care and precision throughout the movie, Dan also struggles with moving on with his life and ultimately, missing his wife.
The film centers around a family reunion of sorts which Dan and his girls attend, along with Dan’s parents, his three siblings, and their families. The house is packed and because Mitch, his younger brother (Dane Cook), is expecting his girlfriend to stay with the family, Dan is relegated to sleeping in the laundry room, running dryer and all. This may seem a small point of contention but the sleeping arrangement serves to illustrate Dan’s loneliness and awkwardness within the family in a “subtle, no obvious, no subtle” kind of way.
On a morning trip into town, Dan runs into Marie (Juliette Binoche) and the two immediately hit it off. In this scene the audience gets a true feel for how Dan might have been in a past life: shy but charming, unsure but carefree. Upon returning home he begins to tell his brothers about the mysterious woman in the book shop in a boyish, giggly way until he is interrupted by the introduction of his brother’s girlfriend, Marie. An awkward exchange follows and Dan immediately shrinks back into his shell. Throughout the weekend Dan and Marie come only closer to each other all the while attempting to not only keep their secret but also, for Dan in particular, to ignore the new found feelings. This tension culminates in Dan singing during the family talent show, something he has not done since the death of his wife. Confrontations ensue and after a truly touching meeting with his kids, Dan is able to grasp hold of the happy ending he so badly deserves.
Most of the humor of the film is based in sadness and loss and as such, “Dan In Real Life” is not a true romantic comedy it may be perceived as. There are a few “laugh out loud” moments but even these, I believe, hold a deeper meaning than a cheap laugh (though the “murder of love” scene is “slap your knee” hilarious). Even a dance scene that would be sure to break the audience into hysterics in most films comes across as awkward, even sad. Yet just as “Dan” is not an inherently funny movie, neither is it inherently sad. The film, and more importantly its characters, never dwell on the loss for long enough to drift into the dismal, depressing affair that so many dramas of the same ilk often become.
Steve Carell gives (are you ready for this?) an Oscar caliber performance, though it will undoubtedly be dismissed as insignificant by the idiots of the Academy. As big a fan of his as I am, I could have never imagined Carell could nail this role as well as he did. The viewer can see the fear and the hurt in Dan’s eyes but that he doesn’t want to allow the loss to control him. He neither ignores the past nor dwells on it. The love that Dan and his wife shared for each other is vividly displayed throughout the film despite the fact that she never once appears on screen. I challenge anyone to watch the talent show scene without FEELING the loss in Dan’s voice and mannerisms. There are other fine performances in this film. Binoche is excellent as always and Dane Cook is rapidly becoming a legitimate supporting actor of note with his work here and in this summer’s “Mr. Brooks.” But this film belongs to Steve Carell and should serve as a showcase of ability for anyone paying attention.
“Dan” is one of the more real and authentic films which I have ever seen. Dan’s (and his children’s) vulnerability allows the film to display loss, humor, hurt, love, and heartache in ways that are rarely shown. It is less a work of art and more a work of LIFE that makes a far stronger impression than most of the “touching” or “real” movies that Hollywood has put out recently. I hope that the Academy gives “Dan” the opportunity it deserves and before it gets bumped out of theaters, I would encourage anyone to see this film. (Anyone, that is, except the group of 14 year olds that were in my theater. You should probably go see “Fred Claus” instead. Trust me, many more fart jokes in that one.)