The opening shot of “Dan in Real Life,” the latest film from “Pieces of April” director Peter Hedges, focuses, naturally, on Dan. Dan wakes up, takes a moment to collect himself, sighs and says “O.K.” This is his first and last moment of tranquility for the day.
Such thoughtful moments redeem what could be dismissed as yet another cliché romantic comedy, complete with an out-of-touch parent struggling to raise his children and have a personal life. Meet Dan Burns: a widowed advice columnist and father of three. Dan liberally consults with lots of anonymous readers, but is unable to talk to his own daughters on subjects ranging from driving to romance. Typical father-daughter scenarios are sprinkled throughout the movie, including a family retreat to a Rhode Island beach house, charades, and touch football.
But the main story centers around Dan’s immediate attraction to a woman (Juliette Binoche of “Chocolat”), whom he meets in an otherwise abandoned bookstore. Following their intense and brief connection, Dan returns to the beach house—bragging about his encounter like a love-sick seventh grader—only to be introduced moments later to the mystery woman herself. She is actually dating his brother Mitch, a superficial aerobic instructor played by Dane Cook. Binoche’s character is forced to choose between the two opposites.
Despite his general lack of acting credentials—did anyone even see “Employee of the Month?”—Cook shows potential as a film actor, even if the script provides him with few opportunities to do so. As the womanizer-turned–romantic, his character connects with the audience in unintentional expressions of true emotion, which seem more genuine than some of his more scripted moments.
But his macho façade contrasts too sharply with the family-oriented aspects of his character, a real Mamma’s boy with a penchant for family team-crossword games. Instead of fleshing out Cook’s character, such quirks only undermine his “player” image.
Binoche encounters similar problems, failing to construct a clear identity for her character. Her whimsical nature comes across as confusion rather than free-spirited independence.
The script is of no assistance here. Binoche’s first scene, in which she says she is looking for a book that’s “right in a wrong way” and will “sweep her up unexpectedly,” is such a blatant metaphor for the rest of the story that her character loses all credibility. Her words seem so planted that from the start Binoche has no choice but to commit to a cheesy delivery.
Thankfully, Carell rescues the film with the comic timing for which he is known. While hackneyed lines tend to trivialize his more emotional moments, Carell’s self-deprecating humor reveals his understanding of a deeper character beneath the script’s more obvious jokes.
Overall, such groan-inducing ploys are the weakest point of “Dan in Real Life.” Several family discussions debate the film’s blatant concerns, including “Will Dan ever find love again?”
But despite the overabundance of eye-rolling moments, the film still delivers plenty of honest and funny family scenes. The story may not be original, but it is timeless, and several surprising examples of wit and tenderness may prove more enduring than some of its sale-bin predecessors.
Though not the sweep-you-off-your feet tale Binoche is searching for, “Dan in Real Life” is, as Carell states at the very beginning, O.K.