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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dan in Real Life

Long before Dan in Real Life opened at the Essex Cinemas, I pondered how I would even remotely relate to a movie with a title like that. “Real Life” to “Dan” and most people is about as different as squirrels and butter to me. These movies and television shows that portray families getting together and blending happiness and strife into a satisfactory outcome for all is completely alien in my family. Whenever we have a family reunion, everybody is expected to bring at least one covered dish and an unresolved issue with them. By reunion’s end, they may leave with an empty dish, but they will no doubt have plenty of new issues and targets to choose from for the next event. If there is blood on the curtains that is only a sign that progress was made in resolving some family crisis along the line somewhere.

This is very different than the family get-together portrayed by Steve Carrell (Evan Almighty) and company in Dan in Real Life. In this movie, Dan (Carrell), is a widower of four years who has been struggling to be a good parent for his three daughters, teenagers Jane (Alison Pill of tv’s late, great, and sorely lamented "The Book of Daniel") and Cara (Brittany Robertson; Frank), and ‘tween Lily (Marlene Lawston; Flightplan). Naturally, they hate him, no doubt a sign of his spectacular parenting skills, but he doesn’t take it that way. Instead, he lets it add to his already melancholy mood, which is what pervades throughout this picture.
All Jane asks of her father is an opportunity to show him that she is capable of driving the family station wagon, but even though she has a license, Dan won’t think of giving her a chance. Cara, at 13, feels the pangs of her “first love” and instead of comforting her through its ups and downs, Dan treats her as if she is frolicking nude on a slip-n-slide covered in toxic waste, telling her repeatedly that she can’t possibly have fallen in love with someone she’s only know for three days, an attitude that only alienates the girl further and further. As for the youngest, Lily? All she wants is for her father to pay any attention to her at all. He is always so busy with work or the other two kids that she falls last on the list and she feels as if she has lost both her mother and her father and she misses them both desperately.

Depression seems to hang in the air like a morning fog for poor Dan. Even when he takes the girls from New Jersey to visit their extended family at the Burns vacation home back in Rhode Island he can’t shake it. Heck, I’m even depressed just writing that last sentence. Anyway, his perfect parents ~ right out of central casting ~ couldn’t be more loving and concerned. Nana (Dianne Wiest; Dedication) is so maternal and sweet she could have rainbows and bluebirds fly out of her crevices if this was an animated feature and Poppy (John Mahoney; most famous for his role as father to tv’s “Frasier”)is quiet but cuddly, wise but not too pushy. He makes Ward Cleaver look like a serial killer. The rest of the clan is pretty spectacular too, even if we never really get to know any of them except Dan’s puppy dog older brother Mitch, played by the unlikeliest of canines, that great Dane Cook, most recently from the hit film Good Luck Chuck.

The only problem on the horizon during this get-together comes in the form of a gorgeous woman Dan meets on his first day back at his parents, during a solo trip into town. The woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche; Breaking and Entering), is the first Dan has had even a spark of interest in since his wife died, and they spend the better part of the morning in long conversation before going their separate ways. During this conversation, Marie admits to Dan that she is in the beginning of a new relationship and feels awkward spending time with him, but it all remains innocent enough until later that day when Mitch makes his arrival at the reunion with his new girlfriend, Ann in tow. Well, Ann-Marie, actually. You get the idea. So begins the uncomfortable phase of the movie as Dan and Marie pretend not to have met and then steal every moment they can to be alone while under the same roof with the rest of the family, who are completely enchanted with her and thrilled that Mitch has found such a lovely companion at last. Oh-oh.

Anyone over the age of ten can probably figure out where this is going and how it will all end, so there is nothing earth-shatteringly new in Dan in Real Life. Ann, of course, is like a fairy godmother to Dan’s girls and helps them warm up to their father while also teaching Dan to be more loving and open to the girls’ needs at the same time. By the end of the movie, if they weren’t all dancing to another kind of music (you can guess, but if you need a hint, it usually involves an organ) they’d be singing “Kumbaya” and making key chains out of plastic boondoggle.

Maybe this is real life to some people but they aren’t anyone I know. If this was my family and two brothers were in love with the same woman there’d be a cage match to the death to determine who was going to have the privilege of using and abusing her before breaking up with her for the next honey that came along. And the woman of their dreams would more likely than not charge by the hour and wouldn’t have any qualms about lovin’ both brothers either separately or together. Of course, she’d probably look more like Rosie O’Donnell without make-up than Juliette Binoche with. That, I suppose, is exactly why we go to the movies in the first place. Love stories like Dan in Real Life rarely include arguments over who left those little hairs on the shower soap or whether the toilet seat should be up or down. Actually, if I could pay $7.00 to make those sorts of problems disappear, even for a day, and get a background score as a bonus, real life wouldn’t be half-bad.

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