Dan in Real Life (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Most romantic comedies follow conventional formulas that, when they work, can result in a frothy, enjoyable end product - admittedly, not something to challenge the intellect but enough to cause the heart to skip a beat or two. When those formulas turn rancid, however, the result is something like Dan in Real Life. Beneath its aw-shucks, wants-to-be-liked exterior, this is a bankrupt motion picture. It's cloying, artificial, and not the least bit romantic. In its 100 minutes of screen time, it gets only one thing right: that teenage girls will always hate their father, regardless of the provocation.

Dan in Real Life feels like a bad flashback to The Family Stone. However, where that one had some charm, wit, and genuine romantic impulses, this one has none of the above. It's an unhealthy mix of romance and family angst and, while the dosage isn't toxic, there are too many times when it comes close. The most depressing thing about watching this movie is that there's always a sense it's on the verge of doing something interesting, but it never gets there. Only when the end credits are rolling does it become apparent that the movie is never going to live up to whatever potential it might have claimed.

Dan Burns (Steve Carrell) is a newspaper advice columnist and writer of fiction who's on the verge of hitting it big with a nationwide syndication deal. He's the single father of three girls - 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson), and the much younger Lilly (Marlene Lawston) - a brood he has raised on his own for the past four years following the death of his wife. This fall, as every year, the entire Burns clan gathers at Grandma and Grandpa's (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) house for a family reunion. While out buying a newspaper, Dan encounters a woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche), in a bookstore. It's a "meet cute" that only a screenwriter could dream up (so much for the "real life" aspect of the title). The two hit it off and spend hours talking, but eventually Marie has to leave to meet her boyfriend. Dan heads home only to discover that Marie's boyfriend is, in fact, Dan's younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). With Marie and Dan now under the same roof for a period of time, this sets the stage for a series of clandestine meetings and other sit-com plot devices designed to keep this "secret" relationship from coming into the open while passion continues to bubble underneath.

It's instructive to realize that the relationship we care about the least is the one between Dan and Marie. Not only don't they seem made for one another but it's hard to imagine them doing anything that involves horizontal activity. Juliette Binoche is a great actress but she lacks the necessary ingredients to succeed in a romantic comedy. The immensely likeable Steve Carrell falls back on a cross between the characters he played in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine. If it worked in the past, why not regurgitate it? Dane Cook is once again annoying, continuing to make me wonder why this guy is so popular. (If he ever makes a movie with Jack Black, there's no way I'll be able to endure it.) Emily Blunt brings some energy to the film, but she's only in a few short scenes with a total screen time of less than ten minutes. More Blunt might not have saved the film but it would have made it more palatable.

The movie strains credibility on a consistent basis but, since this is a "comedy," we are supposed to forgive such lapses even when they become extreme. But it's not easy to be forgiving when there's no real payoff. Too often, such as with Dan's repeated run-ins with the same cop, there aren't any laughs. On those occasions when Dan in Real Life ventures into the dramatic arena, it's on even less stable ground. Dan's interaction with his children is so awkward that it's embarrassing and the way he deals with his family isn't any more mature. We're also supposed to believe that his brief morning encounter with Marie has changed Dan's life forever, but we're only permitted to see a fraction of their interaction. Director Peter Hedges cheats by using the montage method (something he also employs later during a crucial scene in a bowling alley). The filmmakers want us to accept that Marie and Dan are suddenly stuck by Cupid but they don't take the time or effort to show it. What they're selling, we're not buying and the entire foundation of the movie falters as a result of that.

It's tough to actively dislike something this bland and inconsequential. It's just another throw-away movie that only merits a review because it features someone as prominent as Carrell. It's doubtful that even the most stalwart defenders of formulaic romantic comedies will be able to mount much of a campaign in favor of this one. It does too few things well to be worth fighting for. It is being released as Halloween counterprogramming to Saw IV, and one would expect Dan in Real Life to be justifiably eviscerated at the box office.

Dan in Real Life (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1