Dan in Real Life
US Release Date: March 11, 2008
The Film - out of
“What don't I understand, Cara? Please, help me out. What is it? Is it frustrating that you can't be with this person? That there's something keeping you apart? That there's something about this person that you can connect with? And whenever you're near this person, you don't know what to say, and you say everything that's in your mind and in your heart, and you know that if you could just be together, that this person would help you become the best possible version of yourself...”
It is nearly impossible not to like, if not love, the affable Steve Carell. Somehow, since his ludicrously funny reporter parody on the golden ‘Daily Show with John Stewart”, he has managed to establish himself as a viable leading man within the Hollywood dominion and even earn the title of, perhaps, the funniest man in the movies.
He is also showing a little bit of range. Not only was he the nerdy lovable 40 year old virgin, the bizarre dullard Brick Tamland in Anchorman,the absurdly oblivious boss in NBC’s The Office (still going strong) and is set to star as Maxwell Smart in this year’s Get Smart big screen adaptation, but he found time to take on the somewhat awkward and shy Dan Burns in Dan in Real Life.
In Dan in Real Life, Carell is a widowed father of three, a successful advice columnist and member of a close, crazy Burns family. On an annual retreat to his parent’s home in Rhode Island, where the masses of the Burns family come together for food, fun and fellowship, he meets a beautiful woman while he is out spending some long needed time by himself. They hit it off, laughing and sharing stories over coffee and cake until she receives a call and must leave. Here, Dan discovers that she is involved. They part ways but when Dan returns home, he discovers that his younger brother Mitch’s new girlfriend is the lady he met that morning. Hiding their meeting and suppressing their feelings (trying to do the right thing), the leisurely family get together becomes a growing series of tense, awkward and funny moments.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April), it hits all the commercially produced ‘touching comedy’ road marks, but that really seems to be part of the problem. While I won’t go so far as to say the film merely checks off the requisite elements, it doesn’t excel in any particular area. It isn’t funny enough to provide laugh out loud moments, nor is is touching enough to be sad or reflective or to connect with the audience on some deeper emotional level. It merely handles the familiar well in a somewhat thinned experience. The cast is rather large but it isn’t really an ensemble piece, rather the family provides a broad base of supporting characters to the journey of Dan. The characters in the family are pretty recognizable. Diane Wiest and never aging John Mahony play the wisdom toting, warm and over protective parents. Dane Cook plays Dan’s younger brother Mitch – a looser, youthful, freer spirited member of the Burns clan. The elegant Juliette Binoche plays the accidental fly in the brotherly ointment, and is really quite good. While the chemistry with Steve Carell isn’t always spot on, it certainly fits better than buying her relationship with Dane Cook. Dan’s three daughters (Marlene Lawston, Brittany Robertson and Alison Pill) are a typical representation of precocious and obnoxious – but each actress is quite competent. The rest of the family doesn’t really stand out, but aren’t really supposed to, suitably blending together to be a canvass of people that wrap around the Dan character in comforting and not so comforting ways – much like a real family.
I can appreciate the intent of the director to really live within the family and the house, to get in close with them and feel a part of their lives for a short time, but the film spends loses focus in doing so. It isn’t a bad thing to fall in with the activities of the Burns clan, but it comes at the expense of valuable time that could have been spent exploring the emotional and practical relationships between Dan and his daughters or Dan and his brother or Dan and his parents or…well, you get the idea.
Dan in real life is enjoyable – it is charming enough, warm and nice enough not to disappoint, but doesn’t do enough to really spark. I enjoyed watching Steve Carell exhibit a constant vulnerability – giving Dan a real quality as he moves like a clumsy piece of driftwood through his own life. But in its effort to move the story along at a brisk pace, it forgoes the sweet nectar of films like this, the quieter and more intimate moments that can give characters and relationships the depth to really pull us in. It needed those tender moments to make the comedy more charming and the romance more delighting.
It doesn’t break any new ground, it doesn’t provide any surprises and it doesn’t really hook us so that we will want to visit the story again and again. It does make you smile however, and the occasional slapstick and outlandish humor seem to be at the right level for the tone of the film. When the inevitability of the story falls into place, the film succeeds in nudging just a little bit of a sniffle out of the audience. The film isn’t remarkable in any way, just simply a nice film with nice people and nice moments.
Touchstone Pictures brings to DVD Dan in Real Life with its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. I did not notice any edge enhancements, excess of grain or too much softness or sharpness – the transfer is very average. There is a nice balance of colors, and the Burns family home comes across as quite a warm place. Nothing exceptional about the image but no major issues either. Much like the film, the transfer is just nice.
Dan in Real Life comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound option. This film brims with some great, quirky songs by Sondre Lerche and that is really where the surround sound is called to action. The center channel is well balanced with the front channels and the dialogue is distortion free. There is precious little for the surrounds to do by virtue of the film, so the audio suits the film.
Deleted Scenes with Commentary by Writer/Director Peter Hedges - (20:05) – I was surprised that the deleted scenes didn’t contain more tender or intimate moments. What we do have is a couple of moments that were excised by the director to help the pace and get Dan and kids to the Rhode Island family home and a few other moments that were trimmed from scenes that made it to the final cut. Peter Hedges is candid in his commentary over these deleted scenes.
Real-Life Outtakes - (3:24) – There are a few genuinely funny outtakes here – especially from Dane Cook (who has yet to really find his cinematic footing) – worth a look.
Just Like Family: The Making of Dan In Real Life - (14:59) – The writer/Director discusses the inspiration for the single father Dan coming from his father. While brief – these 15 minutes, with some tongue in cheek sarcasm from Carell and appreciation from other actors, gives off a genuine sense of enjoyment from all involved about the film they were making.
Handmade Music: Creating The Score - (9:47) – This is my favorite special feature on this disc. Music in film is the soul absolute and letting the music be as much a character in the film as the actors is key – especially for a film like this. The music by Sondre Lerche matches the film, becoming a real but not intrusive presence. The way that Peter Hedges used Sondre to create a tone or an emotion in certain scenes by having him with his guitar start strumming away, was a novel approach indeed.
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Peter Hedges - An informative commentary, straightforward and at times quite revealing of the process the write/director went through in molding the film to the final product. In listening to the commentary, it became apparent to me that perhaps the disappointments I found in the film may very well have been from how the story is particularly personal to Peter Hedges. Not a problem, per se, but some things about the film may very well work for the director, but don’t quite so easily translate onscreen for the rest of us to enjoy.
As I find with almost every commentary I listen to, I gained more of an appreciation for the movie than I had in watching it the first time.
Grossing just over $47MM at the North American box office, Dan in Real Life seemed to find a fairly good sized audience (given the subject matter) and by all accounts can be considered a success. I think most viewers will find that they enjoy, but not love the film. Whenever I think about this film, all that comes to mind is that it was nice and likable - but funny, affecting, and wonderful are more what it was trying for.