daninreallifesm.gifI have to admit that I go into any Steve Carell movie just happy to be there (a theory I am not testing with “Evan Almighty”–why mess with the perfect track record in my head?). Carell’s most recent effort, “Dan in Real Life” is being marketed as a comedy about a newspaper columnist who gives readers advice but still has problems. Anyone watching the trailer would think: ah, this is going to be about his home life and what a wreck it is. Nominally, that person would be right. But soon after we meet the widowed, sad-eyed Dan and his three spunky daughters, the family leaves the home-based comedy and travels into what seems like a different movie entirely, perhaps from a different age: the “home for the holidays” comedy.

Dan is a writer who works from home. Aside from the opening moments that portray him at his computer, the story and action focuses solely on his family. Even a work meeting that he takes later in the movie is in the company of his family. And that’s when it hit me. Today’s rom-coms tend to focus on technology. But here, it’s notably absent. Where’s all the instant messaging and email flirtation that romantic comedies today rely on? The couple meets in a bookstore, a BOOKSTORE. When was the last time you saw that in a romantic comedy?
But this romantic comedy is more subtle, due to the endlessly endearing Steve Carell, who provides moments of comedy, but among many more moments of micro-heartbreak. Dan’s primary concern is for his micro-family–the three daughters growing beyond his control or comprehension, and the commitment he has to the macro-family (what seems like endless siblings and nieces and nephews, along with cheerful realist matriarch Dianne Wiest and a John Mahoney who’s distractingly more gaunt and less crucial than he was on “Frasier.”
Of course, then there’s the romantic subplot, as generic as Carell is extraordinary: Dan goes to a bookstore and meets a cute, quirky Juliette Binoche. They talk for hours, and she admits she’s just started seeing someone. Dan goes back to the cabin on the lake with the family. His brother (played by Dane Cook with facial hair) announces that he’s expecting his girlfriend to arrive at the same time that Dan announces he’s met a woman at the bookstore. While his siblings are grilling him, Cook’s girlfriend–obviously, Juliette–arrives and there’s an awkward moment, followed by the “comedy” and more awkward moments as Dan cycles through his pain and decides that family is more important than the connection that he’s made with this woman. (That’s not the whole movie, just the setup. I’m not trying to spoil things here…)

Maybe I’ve seen too many romantic comedies. (Or maybe the image of John Mahoney at a cabin made me think of the classic bedroom farce episode of “Frasier,” when they went to the ski cabin.”) But I saw the love triangle coming a mile away, although it seemed to shock several members of the reviewing audience, because I heard gasps in the screening. From established movie critics who should know better. (Names withheld to protect their privacy and reputation.)
Bottom line: Dan wants love, but he loves his family more. And Steve Carell strikes precisely the right blend of dour and dash, with what has become his trademark: an approachable, relatable, weirdly awkward charm that’s human, flawed, sincere and simply irresistible.

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