As much as I roll my eyes at the generically ironic scenario — he’s an advice columnist, but his personal life is a mess! — I’m delighted by the effortlessly breezy humor of “Dan in Real Life.” It breaks free from that lame set-up’s confines to go deeper into the psyche of its central character. It’s a smart movie with a deceptively simple premise.
Dan (Steve Carell) is a New Jersey newspaper columnist and a widowed father of three daughters whom he loves and wants to keep young forever. He is the epitome of a Steve Carell character: hapless despite being successful, and upbeat despite being a loser. You get the sense he’s just barely keeping his life together, that he’s been just barely doing it for years — and that he could keep just barely doing it indefinitely. He’s got just-barely-coping down to a science.
He and the girls go to Rhode Island for a weekend, an annual gathering of his parents, brothers, sisters, and their families. The clan is large, and I’m not sure I caught, in every case, which were Dan’s siblings and which were his siblings’ spouses. I kind of like the hecticness of it, though. The long take where Dan first arrives and greets everyone felt exactly like my visits home for Christmas, where aunts and uncles and cousins abound and you try to say hello to everyone without making a spectacle of yourself or interrupting the festivities already underway.
The meat of the plot comes in the form of another potentially oh-too-wacky development. Dan goes into town to buy a newspaper and meets a beautiful woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche). They talk and laugh and have what seems to be a great connection. He gets her number and promises to call soon. When he gets back to the house, she is there, too. She is his brother’s girlfriend, here for the weekend to meet the family.
The brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), looks up to Dan and quotes his writings liberally. Dan is smitten with Marie, though obviously now he can’t do anything about it. Less clear is Marie’s attitude toward Dan. She doesn’t seem as head-over-heels about him — or, for that matter, about Mitch — as Dan and Mitch are about her. And would Dan really fall in love this fast, in one weekend, in the crowded, bustling family-reunion atmosphere? I’m skeptical, and the movie doesn’t do much to allay my skepticism.
Yet I’m charmed by the realistically cozy depiction of large families, with their inside jokes and their petty, lovable squabbles. There’s a scene of extended riffing on a family acquaintance named Ruthie “Pig Face” Draper, which is terribly mean but terribly funny. (Don’t worry, Ruthie isn’t present.) Don’t we all do that when we’re together with the family? If it’s not OK to make fun of people we know while in the safe confines of the family circle, when is it OK? That’s what families are for.
This is the second film to be written and directed by Peter Hedges, who previously wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” His directorial debut, “Pieces of April,” was one of the indie gems of 2003, and it also dealt humorously and honestly with family ties. Here he lets the family stuff happen primarily in the background, focusing mostly on Dan’s internal struggles. The Marie situation is the catalyst, but Dan’s real issues go deeper than that, and the film is about him trying to get out of the emotional rut he’s in. He could continue to live right on the edge of a nervous breakdown; he’s just rather not.
There’s a happy ending, of course, and maybe it’s just a little too easy. Maybe some of the conflicts are resolved more carelessly than they ought to be. On the other hand, what does Marie even see in Mitch? Look at it this way: It’s Juliette Binoche with Dane Cook. I mean, come on.
B (1 hr., 39 min.; )