'Real Life' a Charmer of the Pre-Raunch School

EntertainmentTheaterMoviesBroadway TheaterCrosswordsDianne WiestJohn Mahoney

Can a low-key, highly agreeable charmer such as "Dan in Real Life" make itself heard in today's shrill comic marketplace? I hope so. While there's no denying the formidable raunch and formidable verbal wit of "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad"--louts on the outside, sweeties underneath, good comedies all--it's possible to like or even love those films and still have a place in your heart for something more old-school.

Make no mistake: There's a formula at work in "Dan in Real Life." Among other things, the film shows off Steve Carell, star of "Virgin" and the American version of "The Office," as ready, willing and able to play comedy in a different, more confidential key. He plays an advice columnist on the brink of syndication, still grieving the death of his wife four years earlier. While casting Carell as a widower father of three--think Fred MacMurray with daughters instead of sons--opposite Juliette Binoche may sound like more of a novelty than an inevitability, the result feels right. These two very different stars relate well on screen. And the story has enough of the inevitable about it without having to emphasize it in the casting.

The director and co-writer is Peter Hedges, who directed "Pieces of April" and co-adapted the Nick Hornby tale "About a Boy." Like the latter, "Dan in Real Life" exists in a land of milk, honey and relative upper-middle-class affluence, judging from the fabulous waterfront locale of the summer home where much of the story unfolds. Every year the extended Burns family convenes for its annual gathering, whose highlights include interfamilial crossword puzzle-solving events and an amateur talent show. (Reading that sentence I can't believe "Dan in Real Life" works, either.)

Dan arrives with his girls and soon, heading off to town on his own, he stops in at the local bookshop. There he meets Marie (Binoche), and within hours he has lost his heart. That meeting scene, it must be said, is not promising. As written, Marie is a high-spirited, somewhat scattered woman who initially seems more of a run-on sentence than a real person. It takes a while for Binoche to make any kind of sense of the role; it's a language issue, but also a matter of Binoche being such a vibrant, soulful screen presence, she threatens to take over the film by force. Binoche's instinct as a performer is to tease out all the inner struggles and emotions of Marie in the very first scene, and it's like Whoa! What's your name again?

Then, rather miraculously, "Dan in Real Life" settles down and gets really good. Dan, who has been grieving the loss of his wife for four long years, falls instantly for Marie, only to learn that she's dating Dan's brother Mitch (Dane Cook, in his least insufferable performance to date). All weekend, everywhere Dan turns his woebegone and lust-addled self, there's Marie, leading the aerobics session, getting cozy on the football field, turning the world on with her smile. Her tangled feelings for both brothers (Cook's character doesn't know about the bookstore encounter) may be the stuff of narrative contrivance, but the way Carell, Binoche and their colleagues finesse it, you're happy to be hanging out with everybody.

Hedges and Pierce Gardner have written a true ensemble piece. Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney play Nana and Poppy, and Wiest in particular scores with some nice, tart banter. (After a few hours with Marie, Wiest's character informs Mitch: "If you botch this up, we'll keep her and get rid of you.") Many of the supporting parts are played by Broadway theater alums, from Norbert Leo Butz to Jessica Hecht. And in a small but choice cameo, Emily Blunt--a vicious standout in "The Devil Wears Prada" ensemble--plays an old schoolmate of Dan's who holds up her end of an extremely competitive double date.

The joke in "Dan in Real life" is in seeing a decent but emotionally bottled man, accustomed to doling out sensible, even-keel advice for hire, go into a complete tailspin when love comes calling. The film could use a touch more lust to go with all its wit and charm: There's a scene, for example, when Dan and Marie sneak off together, and just when you expect a make-out session, at the very least, the characters opt to go bowling. Still, there's a lot of feeling in the material and in the central triangle, enough for the audience to give a rip about matters other than moving from Plot Point A to Obstacle B to Resolution Z. As a director Hedges is smart enough to allow his actors to share the frame and interact and let the material breathe. In the end Carell runs the show, and he pulls it off because like other good actors here and abroad--Daniel Auteuil comes to mind--you don't hear the gears shifting between comedy and drama. Like the songs and incidental music on the soundtrack by the Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, Carell's performance may not scream for attention. But for this modestly beguiling material, it's just right.

Get showtimes and movie details for "Dan in Real Life."

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