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Review

Reviewers divided on Carell movie ‘Dan in Real Life’

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November 1, 2007

Blood is thicker than water, or so we are taught from infancy. Our moms would always be there to kiss our wounds, our dads always imparting the perfect pearls of wisdom. A beautiful thought if only it were true. The cruel fact is that families are far from perfect. That picturesque Brady household is something we can only dream about for 20 minutes at a time, in between commercial breaks.

Peter Hedges, director/screenwriter of the new family dramedy “Dan in Real Life,” succeeds in translating the perfect family formula onto the big screen. Like all utopian visions, this is far from perfection but it manages to carry such a charmingly infectious quality about it that “Dan” makes us fall in love, flaws and all.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a great advice columnist. He helps countless people through countless problems. He is so good he is even being considered for national syndication. The only problem is that he isn’t listening to his own advice. A widower with three daughters, Dan is a sad and miserable single parent struggling to connect with increasingly distant children. This sad existence is rocked when he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), a beautiful free spirit that embodies everything Dan needs to be happy again. Things begin looking up until Marie turns out to be the girlfriend of Dan’s brother (Dane Cook).

The movie stumbles to begin with. Dan is introduced as a stereotypical single dad, and his daughters are bland script-readers who moan out their part of the plot. But something happens as the movie progresses; Carell brings such likeable exuberance to his role that he begins to embody all of our own unrequited love and romantic sorrows. We become connected with him in inexplicable ways.  He moves from mere stock character to a personification of our own heartbreaks and secret desires.

The interactions between Carell, Binoche and the rest of the Burns clan are so beautifully awkward. These exchanges are often funny but the tension and lustful pining is palpable just underneath the surface. A touching musical scene becomes a cathartic release for both Dan and the audience.

Hedges may be criticized for crafting a family too soapy and perfect for modern society, but by keeping his supporting cast subdued, he is able to use them as foundation. These people exist in the film’s framework solely to support and enhance Dan, the character.

The Burns family is indeed too wholesome for real life, complete with morning exercises and talent shows, but they live in the viewer’s mind as a symbol of what family should, and could, be. It is refreshing to be presented with a family you can, and do, envy instead of one drenched in agony and dysfunction.

Although “Dan in Real Life” has several flaws, they never overpower the feel-good message. It is a film that revels in its own cheesy sappiness; it portrays a simpler existence and urges that we believe in love at first sight. Like your first kiss or crush, there are things looking back that were not right but you don’t care; you wouldn’t dare alter it for the world. 

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.