No one is better than Steve Carell at playing clenched. In “Dan in Real Life,” he plays a character so clenched he just about levitates off the ground. Dan is an advice columnist and a single parent. He cares for his three daughters. He provides warm and witty counsel to the lonely hearts who write in for help. But his own lonely heart feels like it has been on hold for four years, since his wife died. Dan is holding on to what he has left as hard as he can; a little too tightly, according to the two older daughters. He is not quite ready to let Jane (Alison Pill) drive. And he is not even close to ready to let 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) have a boyfriend, even one who calls him “sir.” It’s as if he lets go of them, if he lets go of anything, he might experience another devastating loss. So, he subsists on tight smiles and denial, tossing off a few gentle wisecracks to try to pretend to the girls and to himself that everything is just fine.
Only the youngest daughter, Lilly (Marlene Lawston) is happy about the family trip to see Dan’s parents (Dianne Weist and John Mahoney) and siblings. Each year they all get together for some unspecified but idyllic celebration featuring a host of family traditions that include boys vs. girls crossword puzzle-solving (losers do the dishes), touch football, and a talent show.
After many years of weirdly quirky dysfunctional movie families tossing out bitter and guilt-trippy quips and tossing back a lot of alcohol, it is positively refreshing to see a movie family that is not ashamed to like each other. Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra working together could have come up with Dan’s family, all swimming in a warm sea of unconditional love and concern. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,” the novel “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) keeps this family warm and decent but real. When Dan’s parents fix him up on a date without telling him, the family breaks into an improvised song that is silly and just a little bit mean in the way that family members give each other permission to be. This family has believable minor irritations and competitions. They get on each other’s nerves and get in each other’s way. But they are solidly behind each other in a way that feels genuine and touching.
It is Dan’s devotion to his family that leads to his problem. For the first time in four years, he meets someone he wants to talk to. She happens to be a beautiful woman (Juliette Binoche). She likes him, too. But she tells him she is in a new relationship. And then he finds her new boyfriend is his brother (Dane Cook). This makes Dan’s conflicts about letting himself feel close to someone again even more acute, which leads to many forms of humiliation, poor choices, regret, hurt feelings, and unhappiness. All of which show Dan that after all that clenching, all that holding on, it may be time to let go.
Steve Carell kind of snuck up on us. He first came to attention as a fake news correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and only “Little Miss Sunshine” has really given him a chance to show his skill as an actor. Here he brings depth and sweetness to the role, showing us Dan’s longing before Dan can acknowledge it himself. Though the character is thin, with not much more to do than react to Dan and give him something to react to, Binoche glows as Marie, and her natural ease on-camera is a nice contrast with Carell’s tension. All three young actresses who play Dan’s daughters are terrific, especially Robertson, whose wail, “You are a MURDERER of LOVE!” superbly captures adolescent heartbreak. And Carell’s reaction, at the same time showing us love, frustration, sympathy, and a little bit of amusement, mingles all of parenthood and all of the memory of falling in love in one tender moment.
Parents should know that this film has brief strong language and some mild references to adult and teen sexual activity.
Families who see this movie should talk about what makes this family so connected and supportive. Why did Dan find it so easy to talk to Marie?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy “Moonstruck” and Parenthood (both with some mature material).