Dan in Real Life (2007): Peter (Pieces of April) Hedges Comedy, Starring Steve Carell

An honorable follow-up to his 2003 Sundance Festiv hit, Pieces of April, Peter Hedges new romantic comedy, “Dan in Real Life,” may prove to be a crowd-pleaser, a charming film for all members of the family (young and old, men and women) and a date film, too.

Steve Carell plays the titular role, a straight (in both senses of the term), uptight widower, raising three young daughters, who falls for a mysterious woman, Marie (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, “The English Patient”), who happens to be the girlfriend of his younger brother Mitch (played by comedian Dane Cook).

In this picture, as in Little Miss Sunshine and the TV series The Office, Carell proves that hes not just a good comedian, but also a subtle and accomplished actor with quite an impressive range. The artistic and commercial failure of Evan Almighty was unfairly attributed to Carell, but it was not his fault. Among other things, that biblical flop showed that the long white beard and other props are unnecessary when it comes to an instinctive thespian like Carell.

A clever, often funny variation of the slice-of life serio comedy that Bob Reiner and James Brooks used to make, “Dan in Real Life” revolves around a large extended family, congregating for a long holiday weekend, during which all kinds of conflicts and tensions, but also occasions of fun and joy, happen.

Hollywood used to make these kinds of multi-generational family films in its Golden Age. It may be that Hedges was inspired by Frank Capras 1938 Oscar-winning comedy, You Cant Take With You, or other similar films of the era. Then, when TV became the predominant form of entertainment, the genre declined as big-screen fare, reflecting the changing demographics and attendance habits of the American movie public. Thus, placed in broader context, Dan in Real Life may be too much in the vein of a TV sit-com, albeit one with A-caliber cast.

Still mourning the loss of his beloved wife, four years after she had died, Dan is a dedicated, overprotective father who tries to pursue a writing career, making a living as how to” columnist. Things change when he accidentally stumbles in a bookstore onto Marie, a charming woman looking for something interesting to read. Love at first sight, or abandoning of rules Disregarding his own “Play It Safe” motto, Dan falls for Marie, not knowing who she is.

Most of the story is set during one long weekend at the family getaway, in a picaresque Rhode Island estate, presided over by two eccentric parents, played by John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest, who always seem to have a wise one-liner to crack.

Predictably, the weekend turns out to be more eventful than any clan member had anticipated, with chaos and confusions, awkward and embarrassing moments, such as Dan and Marie’s accidental rendezvous in the shower, while his daughter is in the room, behind the curtains. All weekend, Dan and Marie try to avoid each other, but with no luck or success.

The growing pains of Dans daughters are of the kind we see routinely on TV. Jane (Allison Pill), the eldest one, is eager to start driving, and sure enough, she gets a chance to do so, when Dans license is revoked and he desperately needs her help. Then there is the endless argument over the infatuation of second daughter Cara (Brittany Robertson) with her new boyfriend: Is it hormonally-driven, as Dan suspects, or first true love Youngest one, the fourth-grader Lilly (Marlene Lawston), is understanding and forgiving most but not all of the time.

Though mostly understated in tone, the movie still has it share of cloying moments, and some of the family activities–outdoor sports, indoor games, music-playing and singing–are a bit too saccharine and calculated to ring sincere. I also wish the film didnt arrange for Dan to be stopped by the same cop two or three times for various violations.

Hedges romantic comedy, as one of Dans advices suggests in a title card, propagates the idea of “Plan to be Surprised,” based on the notion that life is full of complications and contradictions, but also pleasant surprises in the form of unanticipated events and random meetings.

Whether or not the part was specifically written for him is irrelevant, for Carell is perfectly cast as Dan, the type of man who’s good at giving advice to other people, but the last person to benefit from his own wisdom or listen to his heart. Physically appealing, if not drop-dead gorgeous, Carell is a leading man who commands the screen with a presence that suggests kind gentleness, sweet vulnerability, melancholy romanticismyou can see why sophisticated women like Marie would go for him.

Sporting long dark hair and sexy casual outfits, the beautiful Binoche (seen in Hallstrom’s “Chocolate” opposite Johnny Depp and in numerous European films, including Michael Hanekes Cache) effortlessly exemplifies sort of a Gallic feminine mystique.

Continuing to surprise, Emily Blunt (“Devil Wears Prada,” “Jane Austen’s Book Club”) shows up in a great cameo, as Dans arranged date, a woman presumed to be unattractive-the neighborhoods joke–who has become alluring enough to make Marie jealous. Hedges deserves credit for not making Mitch a foolish country bumpkin, instead suggesting that he may be too coarse, or not enough refined and exciting, for a suave femme like Marie.

Hedges’ last film, “Pieces of April,” was an ensemble piece with an all-star cast, headed by Patricia Clarkson and Katie Holmes. Before that, he wrote the book “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” directed by Lasse Hallstron, and co-wrote the 2002 Hugh Grant vehicle, “About a Boy,” also a family film, about a man who reluctantly becomes a surrogate father. Dramatically, Hedges first film was more interesting, but sophomore effort shows progress as a director, particularly in the technical departments, which could also be a function of a larger budget.

Though most of the tale is set indoors, within the close quarters of a crowded house, filled with prying and quirky relatives, Hedges makes sure to show glimpses of the stunning exteriors of Rhode Island during foliage.

Gracefully entertaining, Dan in Real Life is one of the few Hollywood comedies to which you could take your childrenand your parentswithout feeling embarrassed or intimidated by what you see on screen, which is no minor feat these days.

Cast

Dan Burns – Steve Carell
Marie – Juliette Binoche
Mitch – Dane Cook
Nana – Dianne Wiest
Poppy – John Mahoney
Ruthie Draper – Emily Blunt
Jane – Alison Pill
Cara – Brittany Robertson
Lilly – Marlene Lawston
Clay – Norbert Leo Butz
Eileen – Amy Ryan
Amy – Jessica Hecht
Howard – Frank Wood

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 99 minutes

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures and focus features presentation of a Jon Shestack production.
Produced by Jon Shestack and Brad Epstein.
Executive producers: Noah Rosen, Darlene Camano Loquet, Marie Jo Winkler-Ioffreda.
Co-producer: Dianne Dreyer.
Directed by Peter Hedges.
Screenplay, Pierce Gardner, Hedges.
Camera: Lawrence Sher.
Editor: Sarah Flack.
Music: Sondre Lerche.
Production designer: Sarah Knowles.
Art director: Mark E. Garner.
Set designer: Geoffrey S. Grimsman.
Costume designer: Alix Friedberg.
Sound: John Pritchett.