Steve Carell’s new movie is a revelation. Assuming, that is, you’ve found yourself wondering what it would be like to see the star of “The Office” in a different sitcom. Following on the heels of raunchfests such as Knocked Up, Superbad and The Heartbreak Kid, Dan in Real Life has been hailed as a romantic comedy of rare sophistication — but everything’s relative. On its own terms, the picture is at least as contrived as it is charming, and many of its characters bear less resemblance to flesh-and-blood human beings than to those in a Farrelly brothers farce.
It’s a wonder the movie works at all, given the number of missteps director-cowriter Peter (Pieces of April) Hedges makes in the first act alone. Carell plays a newspaper advice columnist whose wife died four years earlier, leaving him to raise three young daughters. I would have found it fascinating to learn what sort of background qualifies a 45-year-old American male to write such a column. (Naturally, syndicators come calling in Act Two.) Unfortunately, the fact that he has suffered a tragic loss is all we are told about our still-grieving hero.
A more fitting title might have been Dan at the Family Reunion. He’s part of an extended clan that convenes each year at the improbably sprawling seaside home of his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest). Just as people in movies are prone to toil in colorful, offbeat professions, a laughably high percentage also seem to own ocean-front property. So far, we’re not exactly breaking new ground here.
Popping into the local book-and-tackle shop his first morning in Rhode Island, Carell is mistaken for an employee by a beautiful stranger. Juliette Binoche costars as Marie. She blows into the place, approaches Dan and asks for his help in finding a tome, which she proceeds to describe for what seems like 15 minutes. The language she uses is scattered, highly emotional and contradictory. She’s clearly in a manic state. The scene — a botched screwball exercise — threatens to go on forever, and its potential is stunted even further by the filmmaker’s use of self-consciously quirky songs by Sondre Lerche on the soundtrack. It is not a promising start.
The next thing we know, Carell and Binoche are sharing coffee and life stories. The attraction is immediate. When she leaves him, Dan’s got her number, and he’s filled with new hope for the future. At least until he returns to the family compound and is introduced to Marie as the new girlfriend his brother (Dane Cook) has brought to the reunion.
And that’s your premise. How will Carell hook up with the woman of his dreams without betraying his brother? What sorts of dangers will he find himself navigating as he attempts to make a love connection without arousing suspicion in the overcrowded house? There are episodes of “Two and a Half Men” with subtler set-ups.
To the extent that this film’s day is saved, Carell saves it with a marvelous performance combining humor with unexpected vulnerability. He dials his standard screen technique down and comes across as sympathetic and believable. Of course, he gets an assist here and there from the script, which Hedges cowrote with Pierce Gardner. It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it crams the movie with characters who seem like holdovers from ’60s Disney fare. Dan’s siblings and their families play touch football, devour crossword puzzles, and stage living-room talent shows like super-wholesome visitors from the planet Peppy.
On the other hand, the movie does feed its star an occasional on-the-money line. (“This is premature,” he advises Binoche in a private moment. “We don’t even know if you can bowl yet.”) It also gives the French Oscar winner the opportunity to prove she can do funhouse every bit as well as art house. I’m not sure Dan represents the triumph some have claimed, however. The latest from Hedges is touching and funny in places, but rarely in the course of its 95 minutes does it look even remotely like real life.