Let us now praise Steve Carell.
Fast becoming one of our best, most dependable comic icons, Carrell wins empathy via tiny, expertly timed nuances of expression. Conflicted emotions appear to leak, unbidden, from the corners of his eyes and mouth. What one sees in the face of Steve is the portrait of an endearing modern masculine fear: Am I giving myself away? Are my vulnerabilities showing? Do I look like I'm still okay, in control, on top of this mess I'm making of my life?
Carrell also possesses that necessary equipment vital to great comedic acting: a body that expresses the essence of our mind-body problem. His gestures betray him, consistently demonstrating that he does not, in fact, know what to do with his physical self in any given situation; he inhabits his body yet it seems not to belong to him.
Brooding and dark in Little Miss Sunshine, exuberantly reprehensible in TV's The Office, Carrell has already created one classic-for-the-ages character as the sweet, gentle uber-nerdly 40 Year-Old Virgin (a role that reveals more genius with every viewing). With Dan in Real Life, he achieves something perhaps even more difficult: portraying an almost regular guy. He does indeed keep it real, and he renders Dan fascinating.
Juliet Binoche requires no praise, as her radiance is already long remarked-upon.
Peter Hedges, on the other hand, deserves special consideration. He's already landmarked himself in my personal screenwriting pantheon for writing the wonderful What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (based on his own novel, no less). But after a somewhat awkward directorial debut with Pieces of April, he's clearly come into his own with Dan.
The movie, nicely shot, knowingly observed, feels lived-in, inherently credible even at its most contrived moments. The casting is as good as it gets, with old pros Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney as the folks you'd like to have, and the almost painfully... steaming Emily Blunt as the one girl who can make Juliet Binoche jealous; even Dane Cook -- up till now thoroughly underwhelming in his non-stand-up career -- does a good turn, and the child actors are great without being cloying.
The absence of cloy, actually, is what makes Dan in Real Life a solid piece of work on the part of Hedges (pictured with his leads, above). Sentimentality threatens it at every turn, but the movie never capitulates. Given its Lifetime channel-like premise (the widower newspaper columnist with three cute daughters and the woman he meets who finally shakes him out of his shell), one might run for the hills. And one, despite the film's many pleasures, may still run: Dan is a room-splitter, as my girlfriend Tater put it. I can easily understand people loathing this movie, and they're entitled. I see it as comfort food.
Maybe you always want haute cuisine; maybe only the latest and hippest eaterie will satisfy your rarified tastes. Me, I still like my occasional peanut butter and jelly (chunky, strawberry, whole wheat and toasted, thanks) and love my meatloaf and mashed. This is by way of saying that there is absolutely nothing cool about Dan in Real Life. It is the opposite of cutting edge.
And is that so bad? Dan is a triumph of the normal -- or rather, the triumph of how far normalcy can be stretched before it pops right into the realm of the absurd. As Hedges points out in this illuminating interview, he and screenwriting collaborator Pierce Gardner wanted to show how ordinary people react to near-impossible situations. And the film is at its finest when it gets the small stuff right: a seemingly offhand line of dialogue (listen for Binoche's muttered "oink") or a wryly articulated image (I'm still chuckling over the way Carrell, in a moment of great frustration, doesn't quite skip a too-large stone in the water, and how the three boys watching him do a perfect double-take with their backs to the camera). And sorry to keep harping on Carrell's great instrument, but man, is he a fantastically awful dancer.
It's the small stuff here that lets us buy into the biggest contrivances. Lord knows we've all seen that bit where a guy hiding in a shower has to endure the shower being turned on him, fully clothed. But what Carrell and Binoche manage to do with such a hoary routine is a joy to behold; Hedges has written it well and directed it better, helped by the kind of crackerjack acting that renders the unbelievable totally true. And there are a few great riffs here -- like one visual running gag about young love that's the best kind of poignant-funny -- that haven't really been done quite this way before.
No need to make too much of it. Dan in Real Life is no reinvention of any wheel and not liable to please any audient who likes his or her cinema au currant. Yes, it's predictable, and dangerously warm-and-fuzzy; in this Year of Apatow and the reign of raunchy boy-man rom-coms, the movie looks positively retro. But if you're a romantic comedy fan in the mood for something that goes down easy and really hits the spot, I'd say Dan's your man.