Dan In Real Life
When I interviewed the lovely Juliette Binoche at the Toronto Film Festival in September 06, she told me she had films lined up with the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon will be released later this year); the Israeli Amos Gitai (Disengagement); the Frenchmen Olivier Assayas and Cedric Klapisch (Summer Time and Paris will also likely reach UK cinemas later this year); Argentine Santiago Amigorena; Iranian Abbas Kiarostami; and Cambodian Rithy Pran.
"It's a nice movie - a comedy, yet there is truth to it. I was very touched," she said. "Probably because if we celebrated Thanksgiving in France, it would be a big problem for me. I related to it."
I don't know what la Binoche thinks of Dan In Real Life, but her words also apply: it's a nice movie, a comedy, but there is some truth to it. Like Pieces of April and his screenplay for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Dan in Real Life coats melancholy observation in gentle character comedy and a soupcon of farce. You may need a sweet tooth, but why fight it?
In the opening few minutes we watch Carell's Dan dispensing sage parenting tips in print - the movie's title is also the name of his advice column - and keeping a too-tight rein on his three growing daughters. A widower, he's working his socks off to keep it all together.
It sounds like the set up for a sit-com, but never mind, no sooner has Dan driven the kids to Poppy and Nana's house for the annual family get-together in off-season Rhode Island than he's meeting cute with Binoche in a secondhand bookstore.
Binoche - Marie, naturellement - is "the one". Or in Dan's case, I guess, the "second one". He feels it - and even though she's barely gotten a word in edgewise, we're given to understand she feels it too.
Unfortunately, she has a boyfriend. Wouldn't you know it? He turns out to be Dan's younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook), a reformed skirt-chaser who announces himself besotted. Too decent to run behind his brother's back, Dan tries to keep his infatuation to himself. The results are every bit as rueful as you would hope.
Dan scarcely makes a good decision in the entire movie (no, not even when he sleeps with Emily Blunt to make Marie jealous). He's rude and ridiculous and miserable. But you have to feel for the guy. He's in love.
Anyway, what's the alternative? Root for a mutt like Dane Cook? I don't think so, not even when he's underplaying as sweetly as he does here. Cook and Binoche - that's like a Camembert and peanut butter sandwich. Some things just aren't meant to be.
A braver picture might have scrapped the meet cute (easily the silliest and least convincing scene) and allowed Marie and Dan to fall in love in full knowledge of their impossible situation. She did something equally untoward in Louis Malle's Damage - not a laugh riot, admittedly.
But if Hedges never gets his hands too dirty he's only prepared to flirt with the farcical aspects of Dan's predicament without sacrificing the character's credibility. It's the guy's forlorn attempt to keep some modicum of self-respect that's so endearing.
There's enough going on between Carell and Binoche - she's a deliciously expressive actress - that the film works as a mature romance and not just another formulaic comedy. I've never seen Carell give such a well-rounded, grounded performance before. Real life might be pushing it, but it's a nice movie all the same.
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