Of all the young, male comedic actors who have recently been in or directed movies that don’t hew to formula, Steve Carell is arguably tops of the class.
Sure, he’s been in some dogs, but he also has indie cred (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine). Too bad his new film, Dan in Real Life, follows the indie-dramedy recipe to the letter, resulting in a forced, derivative flick. The story follows Dan Burns (Carell), a parental advice columnist. (The movie’s title comes from the name of his column.) His wife died four years earlier, and since then he’s been dealing with his loneliness and trying to raise his daughters by himself. As teenage trouble brews among them and Dan sinks further into depression, he takes them to a family reunion. While out getting newspapers, he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), and the two connect. Even though she’s already seeing someone else, desperate Dan asks to see her again, if only to talk. She reluctantly agrees, and the two part. But when Dan gets back to the reunion, guess whom younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook) introduces as his date? And from there, the movie goes exactly where you think it will.
Like a lot of similar indie dramedies, Dan in Real Life is more interested in winning over the hearts and minds of Middle-America ticketbuyers than in giving them a good yarn or providing new, interesting characters. For example, at one point Dan questions his youngest daughter about the sources of her precocious movie-kid sayings; nothing wrong with that, but in the context of a date-movie, it’s just so much pandering, as if the filmmakers are saying to the audience, “We are as bored with innocuous, formulaic flicks as you are!” — when, in fact, they’re not. Not all of Dan is dreadful. The actresses who play Dan’s daughters behave like real-life sisters, their rapport is so natural. The only burp in the ensemble is alleged comedian Cook, who clearly is out of his league.
Carell does the best he can with such light material. There’s nothing to Dan beyond his depression. Even though he’s supposed to be an advice columnist on the verge of national syndication, he never comes across as having any wisdom regarding human interaction — it’s hard to believe that even before his fall into depression he was smart enough to write an advice column. Dan also ignores his daughters and is relentlessly selfish, and the attraction between him and Marie feels mostly one-way. (Obsessive.) The character’s one-dimensionality, combined with the forced feel of the story and the insufferably “hip” acoustic singer-songwriter music on the soundtrack, combine to make Dan in Real Life seem as if it’s just representative of a particular formula: nothing outstanding, but good for date-night.
Dan in Real Life
Starring Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, and Dane Cook. Directed by Peter Hedges. Written by Peter Hedges and Pierce Gardner. Rated PG-13.