Dan: No, I’m not smooth. I’m Dan.
If you’re anything like me, smooth and single do not go together. You see someone you like, rare enough as that can be, and you want to say something but you don’t. Or maybe you do say something but it ends up being perhaps the least intelligent thing you’ve ever said in your life. More often then not though, you stare from afar and admire without having to deal with taking that which most agree is the only way to get anywhere in life – a risk. You can’t blame a guy for being a little frightened though. Maybe he’s been burned hard before or maybe he’s trying to focus all his energy on his career. There are reasons, some valid, some not, and all of them can be interpreted as excuses rather than reason. You tell yourself you don’t need it or it isn’t the right time for you but you still wish it were happening. Any way you break it down, it’s not easy. Sound familiar? If you thought yes even just a little, then “Dan in Real Life”, the new comedy from director Peter Hedges, is a must-see. It will reach inside of you and somehow manage to both break and warm your heart all at once.
The Dan from the title is Dan Burns (Steve Carell), an advice columnist who is admired for his insight into living a balanced, fulfilling and morally uplifting life. Four years or so before the film opens on Dan waking up to his day, he lost his wife and love of his life. After that tragedy, Dan was left to raise their three daughters alone. Between that and focusing on his career, finding love again was not one of Dan’s priorities. And so he became more functional than feeling. Removed from the power of intimacy, Dan no longer knows what it means to be that close to someone and has resigned himself to never knowing that again. That is, until he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a book and tackle shop in Connecticut on a quiet morning. Their interaction is casual, comfortable and it catches both of them off guard. There is only one problem really. She is already seeing someone. Unfortunately for all involved, that someone is Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). His entire family has come up to their parents’ country home for their yearly visit and Dan must now spend the weekend pining and yearning for the fleeting feeling he had with Marie that morning. It only lasted an hour or so but it only took that long to awaken Dan’s heart from its coma.
With so many family members to deal with (Jack Mahoney and Dianne Wiest are at the helm), “Dan in Real Life”, does drift away from its grander purpose from time to time. While the cyclone of kids and parents and aunts and uncles makes for trying times for Dan, Hedges also uses it unnecessarily as a means to distract, with the presumption that it would ultimately make for a more complete film. Luckily, Hedges has got Carell to carry the heavy burden. It is a pleasure to watch Steve Carell come into his own more and more with every picture he makes (despite the occasional “Evan Almighty”-sized misstep). He is charismatic, charming and obviously a sharp humorist. As Dan, he is also self-deprecating, awkward and scared. Carell is the rare comedian who pushes himself to find character in his roles rather than rely solely on his comedic instincts and established persona. Perhaps more importantly, he is entirely relatable as Dan. Whether he’s flopping down on the cot in the laundry room where he is subjected to sleep as the only single adult at this reunion or fidgeting around the kitchen, unable to stand still in his anxiety, Dan is every guy who has even been unsure of himself and felt alone in the crowd. Carell gives Dan so much heart that he becomes the heart of the film itself at the same time.
I wondered after seeing the film if I enjoyed the it as much as I did, despite its slight shortcomings (Juliette Binoche – I know you might like to lighten up every now and then but I don’t recommend it unless there is chocolate involved), because of where I am in my life. Would someone who has found that someone else derive as much meaning and comfort from this film? I can’t say. What I can say, as someone who knows what it means to be lonely, “Dan in Real Life” knows what it means to be surprised by life and love and how these moments and people need to be appreciated and cherished. It also knows that anyone who might be feeling lonely on any given day or for months at a time needs to be reminded that surprises still happen.
Review by Joseph Bélanger