New Carell comedy classically fun, touching

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By: Sam Watermeier <swatermeier@hilite.org>

Writer-director Peter Hedges has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional families with films such as “Pieces of April” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Now, he has wisely joined actor and king of dramedies Steve Carell for “Dan in Real Life,” a funny yet poignant film about an advice columnist who can’t seem to take his own advice when it comes to raising his family and dealing with his own problems.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a widower with three maturing daughters. Despite his best efforts, they all seem to dislike him, especially his two teenage girls, Jane (Alison Pill) and Cara (Brittany Robertson). When the family goes to Rhode Island for a reunion, Dan spends the first few days moping around the house until his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) force him to take some time for himself and go to the bookstore to purchase a newspaper, at the very least. There, Dan meets a woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche) and the sparks start to fly. He is so excited by his newfound happiness that he tells his family he met someone. Little does he know, Marie is actually his brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) girlfriend. The look of defeat on Dan’s face when he discovers this unfortunate fact is truly heartbreaking.

This film has the one thing every comedy should have: tension. It builds among Dan, Marie and Mitch during several scenes, most notably a dinner table discussion in which the skillful Carell displays anger, frustration, sarcasm and sorrow within a single look.

There is also tension in that the whole family becomes suspicious of Dan. There is a scene where his parents and siblings try to give him advice, and it comes as a surprise because rather than being corny, this scene is painfully funny. It may also come as a surprise that the dramatic scenes are equally effective.

In a heartbreaking scene, Dan and Mitch sing Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” during a family talent show. Mitch stops after the chorus, but Dan sings the last verse which is about tragedy and the healing power of love. The lyrics of the song mirror Dan’s experiences after his wife’s death, and you can sense the pain he feels through every word he sings. This may seem contrived, but Carell’s performance makes this scene completely genuine. In a subtle and powerful way, he conveys feelings of loss and yearning. It is such a strong performance that those feelings rub off on the audience. We want Dan to be with Marie because we desperately want him to be happy.

This is also why Cook is perfectly cast. He is irritating enough to the point where you feel Dan deserves Marie more than his brother, but charismatic enough that you don’t want his brother to be hurt by Dan and Marie’s secret romance. Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner have crafted a screenplay with no easy resolution. This is the sign of a great film — one with conflicts that really keep you guessing.

Unlike most romantic comedies, “Dan in Real Life” is heartfelt without being cliché. This is because the characters and their lives are achingly real, whereas in storybook romances, they are picturesque and therefore unrealistic. Fortunately, there are no cheesy moments of characters running through airports trying to prevent the ones they love from leaving them. However, this film is not perfect by any means. There are too many scenes that invoke dance comedy, and Dan’s daughters are underdeveloped characters. In the end, this is just nitpicking because these days, it is refreshing to see a film this wholesome. It’s nice that Hedges can bring the same human touch to a big, studio film like “Dan in Real Life” that he brought to a small, indie film like “Pieces of April.” In other words, he didn’t “sell out” as a filmmaker, and that’s always a good thing.

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