Dan in Real Life
directed by Peter Hedges
(Touchstone, 2007)

Following Dan in Real Life, I obeyed standard movie theater procedures and promptly hit the exit doors. But then a funny thing happened: nothing. No discussion. No follow-up questions. No, well, anything really. A supposed message movie failed to deliver its basic requirement: a message. Though I commend writer-director Peter Hedges for envisioning and then executing a creative, oftentimes entertaining dramedy -- with a respectable ensemble cast to boot -- sadly Real Life fails to offer audiences anything to ultimately reflect on.

Real Life stars Steve Carell as the title character, a 40-something newspaper columnist who appears to have grown increasingly protective of his three girls following the death of his wife four years ago. Like any good father, he tries his best to make them happy. But those uber-concentrated efforts, while well intentioned, ultimately tend to translate poorly. Dan catches a break, though, during a family reunion weekend in Rhode Island, where the quasi-depressed father charms a woman (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore and has his first "date" (read: a deep, truly meaningful conversation), only to quickly find out that Marie is the brand new girlfriend of brother Mitch (Dane Cook).

So, the test for Dan is twofold: Not only must he decide whether to pursue the first girl he has met in awhile, but also whether she is worth stealing out from under Mitch's nose.

Hedges' storytelling is honest enough; no situations felt too preposterous. (Though practically the entire film is set in one house -- over the course of only a few days -- so Hedges doesn't give himself too much room for experimentation, anyway). And admittedly, the script is funny. Especially for Carell, who pulls out a few one-liners, reminiscent of Michael Scott on NBC's The Office, even if said with more subtlety. But that may be exactly it. Stand-up phenom Cook and Frasier alumnus John Mahoney also star, and yet you'll be hard pressed to recall anything they may have said in the skimpy 95-minute feature. (Because I sure am). Also underutilized is Dianne Wiest, Dan's mother, who certainly earned her pay with her motherly look, but sans the expected heart-to-hearts. Indeed, Carell is a scene-stealer in most of his features, but usually not this much.

Despite the narrative cliches, which annoyingly pile up in excess by the time Real Life comes to an end, my real problem is in its relational chemistry between characters -- or put another way, its total absence from the film! You expect -- and want, I guess -- for Dan to end up with Marie, because you know it will help Dan escape from a complete tailspin. (You also, of course, can't understand how a smart, goody-good Binoche would ever desire to be with a loud, somewhat obnoxious Cook, who basically plays himself in this one). Good, honest conversation between two people is one thing, but it certainly isn't enough to outgrow anything beyond puppy love, particularly if the involved parties fail to reignite the sparks between one another at least a second time.

In the end, Real Life isn't too great. Yet it certainly isn't too bad either. It must swim somewhere in the middle then. And maybe for this type of story, mediocrity is the best it can do.

review by
Eric Hughes

5 January 2008

what's new