Steve Carrell has essentially become the gold standard in comedy today – even when in a truly unfortunate vehicle, he’s consistently funny and, what’s more, consistently watchable even in the most dramatic and unfunny moments (he even pulled through and carried Evan Almighty). What other leading man can that be said about in this day and age? Run down the list of Hollywood funnymen and see who doesn’t have a intolerable bomb of a film in the past three or four years. And I’m gonna be really, really nice on this list. I’m avoiding films like Along Came Polly and Tenacious D and The Pick of Destiny, who at least had some fans, and going directly to the films that everyone unequivocally hated:
1. Will Ferrell – Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched
2. Ben Stiller – Envy, School For Scoundrels
3. Jack Black – Envy, Shark Tale
4. Jim Carrey – Lemony Snicket, The Number 23
5. Vince Vaughn – Be Cool, Blackball
6. Owen Wilson – The Big Bounce, Around the World in 80 Days
7. Eddie Murphy – Norbit
In the meantime, Carrell stole the show on Bruce Almighty, broke out big with The 40-Year Old Virgin, won an Emmy off of “The Office,” tugged all of our hearts, even people whose hearts were practically untuggable, in Little Miss Sunshine, showed off some excellent voice talent on Over the Hedge and those “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” SNL sketches, somehow made it through Evan Almighty, and… oh, yeah, he was in Bewitched, too, never mind. Still, that was before he was big, so it doesn’t count, since that’s the point where actors take whatever comes to them.
The point of this was that I expected Dan In Real Life to not be very good, but I went anyway figuring that Carrell would probably save it enough to be worth watching. Plus, it had Juliette Binoche as the love interest, which was enough of a pull for me to show up. My point is this: my expectations weren’t high, but they weren’t particularly low. So it was totally surprising to me how blown away I was that this movie was so good.
Let’s be honest here: you can say all you want that you like a particular actor or actress and’ll show up to see them in anything, but honestly, film is a director’s medium, far more than the average viewer realizes. When a movie’s great, it’s great because the director did a great job. Occasionally an actor overcomes mediocre work from a director and makes something a great movie, but more often it’s the other way around, and the director pulls great performances down. I didn’t know anything about Peter Hedges, the director of Dan In Real Life (hereafter called DIRL because that seems fun to type) except that he’d previously directed a film called Pieces of April, which starred Katie Holmes as a goth chick. And if that doesn’t raise all sorts of red flags on your radar, then you are not human.
But this film was more than just capably directed; it’s a textbook example of a indie film director putting his low-budget sensibilities to work. Hedges made the very specific choice to tell the whole film from Dan’s point of view, where everything that’s seen we see through his eyes (not literally, it's not a POV cam or anything weird like that). It’s a smart choice because so many of Dan’s decisions in the film are bad ones. Very bad ones.
You see, Dan In Real Life – whoops, DIRL, sorry - is the story of widower Dan Something-Or-Other, a newspaper columnist of the Dear Abby variety. He’s raising three daughters who are I would estimate about 15, 13, and 10, all of whom are going through troubled-young-girl stuff that Dan finds himself completely incapable of dealing with. The film takes place over a week-long reunion at his parent’s summer house with his entire extended family, the first day of which Dan has a meetcute downtown with Marie, a pretty French woman (Binoche, natch) to whom he almost immediately pours out his entire life story, because, frankly, that’s the sort of thing that speeds the plot along. There’s connection, they have a lovely time, she finally admits she’s seeing someone, he manages to finagle her phone number anyway, he returns to the house to find out that – BAM! – the fella Marie is dating is Dan’s younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Woah woah! Will hijinks ensue? Who can tell?
The premise is absolutely a little trite, and I expected a certain degree of schmaltz when I snuck into the theatre (what? You gonna make something of it? I’m penniless these days, but I do love a good family comedy!), but the story is carried off with skillfull ease by Hedges and the pack of talented, mostly unknown, actors who showed up to play Dan’s family (particularly his daughters, who all provide a lovely counterbalance to Dan’s gradual emotional meltdown). Even Cook is adequate – in fact, more than adequate, Cook was excellent in this movie (take that Employee of the Month!).
Part of the reason that Cook is excellent is that he’s so well cast for his part –Mitch is boorish and immature and yet eminently likeable, in the exact same fashion as Cook’s on-stage persona. And since the film is told through Dan’s perspective (to get back to that point I started three paragraphs ago, this review is really poorly written, isn't it?), we see him as Dan sees him; a self-absorbed but well-meaning individual who is finally showing signs of growing up. It’s one of the many reasons that we begin to realize that Dan and Marie might not eventually end up together, even though Mitch clearly doesn’t deserve her (warning: correct use of the double negative approaching) - he also doesn’t not deserve her. He clearly believes being with Marie is making him a better man, and Dan sees it too, and so we see it and start to root for Mitch, too.
Both the drama and the comedy in the film come from the fact that Dan is not really trying to win Marie from Mitch, rather, he’s trying quite desperately not to. He wants his brother to be happy, he doesn’t want to do the wrong thing, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and yet he simply cannot help the fact that he’s falling quite heavily in love with Marie. His constant plotting is not to get her to fall for him but just to stop himself from letting his feelings get in the way of what he thinks is right – his every action is the emotional equivalent of pinching yourself to keep yourself awake. Yet, perhaps because he’s emotionally fragile since the death of his wife, perhaps because the constant proximity to Marie leaves him more and more vulnerable, or perhaps because he’s really in love with her, he keeps ending up acting stranger and stranger in his desperate bid to extricate himself from his own feelings.
DIRL (I got it that time) is one of those films that rises above its own seen-it-before plotlines and lets the honesty of its relationships carry it along. Every family detail in the film is perfectly fleshed out – how the whole family fits together, the traditions that stick around even after everyone’s gotten too old for them, the unbreakable ties that both familial love and romantic love give. Hedges isn’t doing anything new here, but what he is doing is family filmmaking at its best – letting each detail of the film enhance the story, interlocking each performance to balance each other out. It’s very delicately done, and Hedges deserves great praise for it.
But ultimately, it’s Carrell who really carries the day here, and it’s another victory tally for him on a streak that should last at least until Horton Hears A Who comes out. As you can imagine, I don’t have high hopes for that one. Though as we’ve seen here, sometimes a film can really surprise you.
Four Stars Out of Five.