As the end credits roll on Dan in Real Life, I imagine most people will have roughly the same reaction -- a smile and a shrug. You won't be angry at yourself for watching it, but you'll be hard pressed to remember the thing in two weeks. It's a relentlessly average movie, packed full of "nice" moments but lacking a single great one.
Steve Carell stars as Dan, a widowed advice columnist trying to be a good father to his three daughters, well played by Alison Pill, Marlene Lawston, and a very funny Brittany Robertson. A widowed man raising his three daughters is also the premise of the old sitcom Full House, and the comparison isn't far off. These daughters are fleshed out a bit more than the Olsen twins, but the relationship beats feel the same -- forced, cutesy, a little tired.
Dan and the girls go to visit their extended family in a lakeside Rhode Island cottage. Dan takes a trip to the local bookstore, and in a very Woody Allen-esque scene, he meets and develops a crush on a woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche). There's a "falling-for-each-other" montage that doesn't really convince, Dan gets her number, and heads home to brag about his new "hottie" and meet the girlfriend of his brother (Dane Cook). Surprise surprise -- his hottie and the girlfriend are one and the same -- Marie. Cue the laugh track.
Carell is one of the most flat-out appealing actors working today, and his considerable charm carries the movie. He's funny, sure, but -- as in his best work (TV's The Office, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) -- it's the quiet desperation in his eyes that keeps you watching. Binoche is obviously a beautiful woman, but she's a little bland here. As with a lot of female characters in romantic comedies, her main personality trait is that she finds the lead hilarious. And I'm sure you're wondering about Cook -- an extremely divisive presence, to say the least. This isn't high praise, but his work here is his best yet -- he's playing kind of a douche, and the typecasting works.
Carell is backed by a fantastic supporting cast that could fill up a wing in the Great Character Actors' Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, no one is given much to do outside of smiling pleasantly and dropping the occasional limp wisecrack. Dianne Wiest plays the mother of the clan. It's so good to see her, but her role consists of chopping vegetables and watching the action. The great John Mahoney is so perfectly cast as Carell's father, I sure wish they had shared more than the few brief scenes they do. Amy Ryan (a shoo-in for a Supporting Actress nomination for the excellent Gone Baby Gone) is totally wasted, as is Norbert Leo Butz, whom you might not be familiar with. I saw him in Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and trust me, the guy is far too funny to be sitting around in sweaters and bantering with Dane Cook. The only performer to make a real impression is Emily Blunt -- who practically glows in her tiny role as a semi-slutty townie chick. Her dance scene with a spastic Carell shouldn't have made me laugh, but the pair pulls it off. I spent much of the running time thinking how much better a different movie with this impressive cast could have been.
My expectations were high going in due to the involvement of director and co-writer (with Pierce Gardner) Peter Hedges, who has a masterful eye for character detail that sadly eludes him here. Hedges wrote my favorite novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and the screenplay for its wonderful adaptation. He also co-wrote About a Boy and pulled double duty on Pieces of April, two more terrific films that reached their happy endings through quite a bit of darkness. The darkness is gone here, and the whole film has the feel of walking into an Eddie Bauer catalog. Everything is a bit too perfect and neat and clean. Outside of kids' movies, this is the hap-hap-happiest family I've seen on film in a long while. I'd imagine that choice was made to set the film apart from the hundreds of dysfunctional family movies out there, a list that includes Hedges' previous work. Putting a happy, supportive family on screen almost seems a daring choice in this day and age. Trouble is, the dysfunctional families are way easier to relate to, and they're always much more fun to watch.
Dan in Real Life had me permanently on the edge of wincing, but always managed to bring me around to a smile at the last second. It is not a bad movie, but in a season with so many great ones, I can't tell you to seek this out. Wait for DVD or cable, where its small pleasures will be much more satisfying.