You’d be hard pressed to find a movie as contrived as “Dan in Real Life,” so it’s a good thing that the movie has charm to spare. The movie gets by almost entirely because of the performance in the lead role by Steve Carell, who takes a deeply flawed character and makes him sympathetic and likable. The movie, at times maddeningly, beats Carell senseless, much in the same manner as your typical Ben Stiller “humiliate me, I enjoy it” movie, but “Dan in Real Life,” thankfully, doesn’t hit as hard, preferring subtlety to a kick in the groin.
Carell is Dan Burns, a successful advice columnist and widowed father to three daughters, two of whom hate his guts (the teenagers, natch). Dan drives the girls to a Rhode Island cottage for their annual get-together with the rest of his family, and it is not long before Dan’s own mother (Dianne Wiest) is suggesting that he get out of the house to give his girls some space. He does so, and in the process meets cute with Marie (Juliette Binoche), only to discover later that Marie is dating Dan’s brother Mitch (Dane Cook). The two share an undeniable chemistry, but decide to put it behind them in the interest of Mitch. This proves to be easier said than done, and Dan finds himself saying and doing things that embarrass himself and everyone around him.
For all the effort that writer/director Peter Hedges, along with co-writer Pierce Gardner, put into developing the characters, it’s rather shocking to see how many holes they left in the story that these characters must act out. Dan’s middle daughter is rightfully punished early in the movie, yet she’s portrayed as a victim of his suspect parenting from that point on, presumably to give the writers one more outlet for pounding on him. Mitch is painfully unaware of what is going before his very eyes, despite the fact that even Dan’s 10-year-old daughter has figured it out. Lastly, and most importantly, Dan himself does things that no advice columnist (or brother, for that matter), no matter how screwed up, would ever do, and after a while, the merely awkward becomes ridiculous.
Again, it is to Carell’s immense credit that “Dan in Real Life” doesn’t go off the rails. His Dan is one that bends but doesn’t break, and that is exactly what the role requires. Binoche is, duh, lovely and amazing, and her work here actually makes me angry that she doesn’t work more. Cook fares better than he usually does (likable though he may be, he has questionable taste in scripts), which is impressive given the fact that he is given nothing to work with. The only other performances that matter are by Dan’s daughters, and as contrived as her character may be, Brittany Robertson absolutely nails the angst of a surly teenager in love.
“Dan in Real Life” is not a perfect movie by any means, but right when you’re about to give it credit for not being an unwatchable wreck (ahem, “Along Came Polly,” the definitive “Everybody Hates Ben” movie), you remember that it also had the potential to be both a great family comedy and a great romantic comedy. In the end, it’s neither a wreck nor great, but it finds a way to succeed as something in between.(3 / 5)