Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
Prefer a comedy with less of an edge?
“Dan in Real Life” (2007) is about as good as reel life gets.
This richly warm and funny romantic comedy may have a sitcomish plot, but it’s also got a giddily high level of verisimilitude that captures the way families can be simultaneously exasperating and soothing.
It’s about a widower named Dan, played by Steve Carell, who writes a family advice column, called “Dan in Real Life,” for a local New Jersey newspaper.
But in his real life, he could use some advice of his own.
Hey, maybe he should read his own column.
Nah, that wouldn’t help.
Dan’s just trying his best to bring up his three teenage daughters, each going through a recognizable adolescent stage.
And he’s trying to avoid being a hypocrite in their eyes by exhibiting behaviors that betray the family values he works into his newspaper column, which is, as he leaves for the weekend, on the brink of syndication.
But walking that particular tightrope is about to get significantly tougher.
Because at the annual family fall gathering at the Rhode Island beach house of Dan’s parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), Dan, his three siblings, and all their children gather for a weekend of meals, games, and news.
The good news: between breakfast and lunch, Dan has – in a scene that overdoes the meet-cute device — a terrific woman (Juliette Binoche), real potential soulmate material, at the local bookstore.
The bad news learned a bit later: she’s the new girlfriend of his younger brother (Dane Cook).
This means that Dan will have to make believe he doesn’t know her, and doesn’t want her, for the whole touchy-feely family weekend.
Can this role model of respectability keep up this charade in such close quarters, in front of not only his brother and his parents but his three daughters?
However precious or synthetic that might sound, it’s not. Director Peter Hedges keeps things grounded in recognizable reality and turns his fine, sizable cast into a convincing extended family.
Carell gives a smartly and deftly low-key performance in this ensemble piece. And Binoche is characteristically irresistible.
And just as these two appealing characters are persuasively drawn to each other, we’re also drawn to them.
The tension between what these two lovestruck grownups feel for each other and what they’re allowed to admit, display, or express is exquisitely handled — and great fun to watch–in this touching, graceful, and unflaggingly entertaining 2007 romcom.
“Dan in Real Life” is a jim-Dan-dy.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.