Friday, October 26, 2007

"Dan in Real Life" -- * * *

Peter Hedges’ romantic comedy “Dan in Real Life” is a bit more familiar, formulaic and sitcommy than his previous feature, the wonderful “Pieces of April,” but it’s cute and charming enough to become a crowd-pleaser, and is elevated to ‘worth seeing’ status by the presence of the intrinsically funny and endearing Steve Carell. Older woman and the date crowd may make “Dan” a modest hit, but any fans of Carell will be interested to see him in a perfect showcase for his considerable talents.

Not terribly plot or contrivance-driven and directed with a breezy and understated feel, the film revolves around likable advice columnist and widower/father Dan Burns (Carell) and the complications he encounters on a weekend retreat with his extended family. Chief among them, sharing a house with his brother Mitch (the surprisingly tolerable Dane Cook) and Mitch’s new girlfriend Marie (Juliette Binoche). The problem lies in that Dan has recently fallen for Marie, before he knew she was with Mitch, when he meets cute with her at a local bookstore, and the two share flirtacious banter.

Though Dan, still mourning the death of his wife four years ago, knows he can’t pursue anything with Marie and tries to avoid her throughout the weekend, the two keep finding themselves together and fighting the fact that they’re obviously a much better match than Marie and Mitch. On top of this, Dan has to deal with his increasingly doting and wisecracking parents (John Mahoney and the much-missed Dianne Wiest) and problems with his three daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston).

From “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “The Office” to “Little Miss Sunshione,” Carell has proven that he’s not just terribly funny, but a tremendously skilled and subtle actor with substantial range. Here, he’s given probably his most likable role to date, and he’s terrific. After the disastrous “Evan Almighty” (which once you get past the media negativity, truly is one of the worst movies of the year), Carell makes up for his momentary lapse in judgement with this immensely charming performance. While this won’t be a performance that gets him an Oscar nomination, it indicates that there’s a lot more to Carell than people seem to be willing to give him credit for, and that a nomination sometime in the future isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Though the movie should be commended for remaining airy and understated, never descending into particularly broad or audience-baiting territory, it does have its share of cloying and familiar moments, and without the presence of Carell, there wouldn’t be much here to stand apart from other films of its ilk. It’s also troubling that Hedges, at this point in his career, is already ripping himself off—there’s an (admittedly sweet) singing-performance scene that is virtually identical to one in the Hedges-co-written “About a Boy.”

Still, the film’s sweet, Capra-esque charms are refreshing in an age where films strive to either manipulate you at every turn or beat you over the head with obvious jokes. “Dan in Real Life” is, thankfully, not that film; nor is it the laugh riot that Carell’s presence (or the trailer for that matter) might indicate it would be. It’s a graceful, warm, slice-of-life comedy that probably won’t be crude enough for Carell’s “Virgin” fans or edgy enough for his “Daily Show” fans, but will sit just right with those seeking a cute, sweet 90-minute diversion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm dumbfounded that Juliette Binoche--a truly superb actress--appears in this film. I hope her role is worth more than her salary. If you should get the chance, I highly, highly(!!) recommend you see "Blue" (from "Trois Couleurs Trilogy") or her Oscar-winning (lead) performance in "The English Patient."

2:57 AM  

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