Dan in Real Life
Alfred Hitchcock made movies about obsession, madness, and voyeurism. Martin Scorsese is drawn to violence, to the shedding of human blood and all that it entails. The Coens are drawn to the darkly comedic foibles of human nature, to that innate foolishness and depravity that lends itself equally well to a murder story or a madcap quest for a stolen rug. And Peter Hedges? His muse is the family. And not dysfunctional family, either—just family, the universal need for acceptance and compassion that we can only get from those we call kin.
Which is not to say that he hasn't portrayed his fair share of dysfunction; to be sure, the ties of family in his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, his screenplay for About a Boy, and his directorial debut, Pieces of April, are all, at times, a bit shaky, with just the right amount of heartache for really moving comedy. But with Dan in Real Life, Hedges does something so unusual, its radicalism is sure to provoke enthusiasm and cynicism in equal measure: He portrays a family not as broken or barely keeping it together, but as positively overflowing with affection, with love for one another, with genuine compassion and grace. It's a move that bears some similarity to other recent films—the preternaturally blessed family bonds of The Incredibles, maybe—but it's a far cry from the strained relations between the members of April's Burns family, to say nothing of, say, a Wes Anderson film.
Steve Carell stars in this small treasure of a movie, a film so filled with heart and imagination that it's sure to be cherished by many. Carell—also a Burns, and the Dan of the movie's title—is a widower, raising three girls and providing for them with his salary as a newspaper advice columnist. But of course, writing about living wisely is much easier than actually doing it, and, after awkwardly breaking up a blossoming romance between one of his daughters and a classmate, then refusing to give his oldest a chance to get behind the wheel for practice driving the family car, Dan ends up at his clan's New England cabin and announces to his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) that his own family hates him.
Not wanting to sour the bustling family weekend—Dan's siblings, with spouses and kids in tow, are all present as well—he humbly drives into town to pick up a few supplies, promptly falling flat on his face in love with Marie (the luminous Juliette Binoche). He flirts with her, talks to her for what seems like hours, scores her phone number, and heads home. Dan brags about his new romantic prospects to his family, and is crestfallen when his brother Mitch (stand-up star Dane Cook) introduces him to his new girl—who is, of course, the very same woman Dan flirted with in the bookstore.
A family weekend, a shared secret, and a woman torn between two brothers—it's the stuff of totally lame Lifetime movies, but Hedges' film is filled with minor triumphs and little miracles, not the least of which is the way he breathes new life into the tried-and-true rom-com formula by shifting the focus from the couple to the family dynamic. It's not just a movie about Dan and Marie; it's just as much a movie about Dan and Mitch, Dan and his girls, Dan and his parents.