Most truly successful and memorable romantic comedies have women as their protagonists and have therefore earned the name “chick flick” as a way for guys to avoid them. However, “Dan in Real Life” leaps upon the fact that men have romantic experiences and enjoy romantic comedies on occasion too by making the main character a man that everyone can relate to. Of course, it helps that this movie also hitched itself to rising star Steve Carell (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Little Miss Sunshine”).
The story focuses on Dan (Carell), a widower with three daughters of various ages and attitudes, who is struggling with being a single parent and a newspaper advice columnist. He packs the kids in the car for a trip to Rhode Island to meet up with his parents and siblings and their associated families at an annual gathering.
Complications ensue when he runs into a beautiful woman (Juliette Binoche, “Chocolat,” “Bee Season”) at a bookstore his first day in town and has a connection with her that he hasn’t felt since his wife died four years prior. Unfortunately, he quickly discovers that this same woman is also dating his brother (Dane Cook, “Employee of the Month,” “Mr. Brooks”).
The rest of the film then follows the humorous and difficult interactions that must occur within the cramped confines of his parents’ house under his family’s eyes as he fights and denies his attraction.
A modern-day Charlie Chaplin, Steve Carell was perfect for the role; he has developed the quiet-and-tortured comedy character to perfection. And with a character like this, he doesn’t really have to act so much as react to the situation and the environment as he lets the comedy develop naturally.
Thankfully, he is a great part of why this movie succeeds as well as it does. It is funny and delightful, yet touching and tortuous all at the same time. Binoche adds her own charisma to the allure of the tale as well. Her enchanting accent and mannerisms alongside Carell’s awkwardness also help to soften what could have potentially been a cheesy plot.
After all, this is not the cleverest of plots, and the writing certainly isn’t anything that will win awards. Yet it still captures the audience’s heart and imagination, as these characters are quite endearing.
It helps that the setting is beautiful and has its own rustic charm as well. The film is mostly shot in or in front of what looks almost like a log-cabin house. But it is actually quite spacious (enough to include all of the family members) and seems very cozy. It is set beside the ocean, and the few scenes shot outside seem to be in a lovely fall setting full of naked deciduous trees and lush pines.
Yet for all its appeal, there is one minor annoyance in the film: the music. The soundtrack is cloying and self-important, with an atypical selection and tone that clashes with the simplicity of the story, the characters and the setting.
However, writer and director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,” “About a Boy”) still manages to produce a memorable film that has many funny moments to appease viewers who aren’t interested in a rom-com. And Steve Carell will certainly please them as well, as he succeeds in finding his niche here again.