Dan Burns (Carell) is an advice columnist, specializing in helping parents having problems with their kids and, naturally, his life has its difficulties. He is a single dad raising three children and he can’t seem to do anything right in their eyes. Each of the children is different; the oldest girl wants to learn how to drive and pleads with her dad to let her. The middle girl wears tiny panties and is ‘madly’ in love with a boy she met three weeks ago. The youngest daughter is the most forgiving and wants to just spend time with her wacky dad.
Wow. Wait a minute. This is a film thornhill liked? As I am in the process of recapping the film even I am beginning to doubt myself. But yes, I did enjoy “Dan”. Yes, there are many, many obvious moments or clichés, but they are treated in such a sweet natured way that it is difficult to not enjoy the ride.
Yes, of course, Dan will have problems in his life. The minute you learn he is an advice columnist there is nothing else that could happen. Of course, he can’t do anything right in the eyes of his children; the main purpose of his column is to give advice to other parents about dealing with their children. Get it? Filmmaker Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”) is trying to build conflict and drama into the story. He may be taking the most obvious route to do it, but he is doing it.
When Dan and his kids set out to join the rest of their extended family at the grandparent’s (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) beach house, there are some amusing moments as each of the children get a moment to establish their character. Particularly amusing are the middle daughter’s views of love. These moments allow Dan to react to his daughter, and allow Carell to provide fairly deadpan, amusing “parent’ expressions when his daughter is overreacting. It is a nice moment for Carell and really helps him establish Dan as a real father, despite all of the clichés and obvious moments. When you realize early on that everything Dan stands for or is against will be tested over the course of this story, it is up to Hedges to find amusing ways to show us this. For the most part, he succeeds. The oldest daughter, who is 17, seems more levelheaded and wants time to practice driving. Dan is horrified of the thought and prefers she ride a bike. Dan’s test in this regard is fairly amusing.
When they arrive at the house, Dan is relegated to the ‘Special Room’ on the first floor because Mitch (Cook) has a ‘Special Friend’ coming. The next morning, after getting in a fight with his daughters, Dan’s mom (Wiest) asks him to go and get the newspapers, to give them some breathing space. He drives into the small town and wanders into the bookstore. Marie (Binoche) arrives and mistakes him for an employee. She asks for a recommendation and they talk about books for a few moments, a bookstore employee reveals Dan’s ruse and they go outside to talk some more. Dan seems to feel very comfortable with Marie, because he talks and talks and talks. And she is an attentive listener. Then, she gets a call on her cell phone and has to rush off. Dan buys the papers and returns to the house to find Marie is her brother Mitch’s new girlfriend.
I am sure you are as surprised as I was at this point.
I think the thing that saves this film is how comfortable Carell and Binoche appear together. They each have a natural charm allowing them to enjoy each other’s company, becoming friends and this leads to the attraction. The moment they start talking, you almost see the characters click.
Naturally, Dane Cook’s character, Mitch, has to be a little of a heal. But to Hedges credit, he only allows Mitch to be a little self-centered. A physical trainer, Mitch met Marie at one of his classes, and then they started dating. Mitch introduces her as Annie, her middle name, because ‘Marie’ is too similar to the names of two other people in his class. We quickly learn she doesn’t like this, yet Mitch continues to call her this, seemingly oblivious, leading Dan to become exasperated, and provide Marie with the first evidence of his growing love.
When the house becomes filled with family members, things get chaotic and crazy. Again to Hedge’s credit, they are chaotic and crazy in a good way. Everyone knows everyone else, so when some piece of drama begins to unfold, Nana (Wiest) can nip the problem in the bud with a quick retort. Or, the adult brothers and sisters hurry to watch, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
Despite all of the surprisingly good bits, the film does occasionally falter. A family talent show sends the sickening sweet scale through the roof. Worse yet, these talent bits are presented as more of a montage, allowing only brief glimpses of the cloying moments. You might think this is a saving grace, but it is actually more of an assault on the senses. The images are so fast and furious they almost overwhelm; Wiest dressed as Charlie Chaplin spitting water out of her mouth while her husband (John Mahoney) sits at her side and laughs, one of the daughters and her husband singing opera, the adopted child reading something. Dan’s older daughter, who apparently doesn’t have a talent, per se, is the lucky one because she merely has to organize the event. She is, however, still required to wear a wacky ‘bohemian’ outfit. They even make a stage and signs announcing each of the acts for this annual talent show. Presumably, everyone learns a new talent every year.
Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Pravda”) has a brief role as the daughter of a neighbor. Nana arranges for her to come over and meet Dan, again, but Dan can only remember the little awkward girl he used to know. When a beautiful woman shows up, everyone is surprised and Dan suddenly feels energized to go on the double date with Mitch and Marie. Naturally, this makes Marie a little jealous.
Then Blunt’s character disappears for pretty much the remainder of the film only to return briefly in the conclusion.
This isn’t really a necessary character because Dan and Marie have enough going on they don’t need this additional ‘test’. It is going to be hard enough for them to come to terms with being in love and how to make this happen while causing the least amount of emotional harm.
“Dan In Real Life” is formulaic, predictable and even a bit treacle at times. But it works. And this is largely due to the performances of Carell and Binoche. Carell is able to restrain his comedy, making the character seem more real. But at the same time, he harnesses some aspects of his previous comedy personas to give Dan an edge. He is a single father, trying to raise three daughters, so the fact that he is a bit sarcastic only helps to make his character seem more interesting. But the sarcasm is restrained. And Binoche’s Marie is a lively, interesting woman who would naturally win over just about anyone. And she wins us over.