If todays bog-standard modern Hollywood romcoms have you running for cover, dont worry youre not alone. But if you long for something with a little light and shade, some naturalistic acting, and a touch of the intelligence of Woody Allen circa Hannah and Her Sisters, then Dan in Real Life might do the job for you.
The titular Dan (Steve Carell) is a smart, well-meaning but flawed widower who writes a daily newspaper column – Dan in Real Life and brings up his three feisty and demanding daughters alone. While Carells tics and mannerisms have become familiar in noughties Hollywood comedies, hes funny and likeable without ever grating, perhaps occupying the sympathetic clown role Ben Stiller made his own a few years ago. Hes closer here to, say, his suicidal gay brother from Little Miss Sunshine, than the overbearing boss from The Office or his bumbling turn in The 40Year Old Virgin.
The film follows an annual family gathering at an idyllic Rhode Island retreat, as Dan takes the girls away, under protest. His parents, played by John Mahoney (Frasier) and Dianne Wiest, play host to sundry children, partners and grandchildren. Dans family treat him in much the same dismissive way as his daughters, and its no time at all before hes told get lost by his mother, in the nicest possible way.
His wandering takes him to a second-hand bookstore where he engineers an introduction with a beautiful out-of-towner (Juliette Binoche, talking American with barely a trace of her own accent), and is immediately smitten. As they go their separate ways, she explains somewhat distantly that shes seeing somebody. Dan returns to the family home, nervously enthusing about the woman to his brothers, and they push him to pursue her, regardless of the consequences. Sure enough, moments later she arrives at the house she is Marie, the new girlfriend of Dans fitness instructor brother Mitch (Dane Cook).
This is where things start to get really twisted, as we root for Dan, even though he keeps the truth to himself, behaves brattishly at dinner, and keeps trying to steal awkward moments with Marie. He stands by, torturing himself, while Mitch and Marie go through a particularly athletic stretching manoeuvre together, and is chastised by his ever-alert daughters for flirting with their uncles girl, who incidentally is adored by the entire family with a degree of warmth and enthusiasm Dan is rarely afforded.
A sub-plot involving Dans young daughter Cara (Brittany Robertson) and her school boyfriend, sees him playing the responsible dad and keeping them apart, but mirrors his own behaviour throughout. And if the denouement is all a little pat, it scarcely matters because there was so much to enjoy in getting there. Binoche is subtle and believable, and the supporting cast, including Brit Emily Blunt as the unlikely pigfaced girl from the town, are uniformly excellent.
Dan in Real Life has plenty of dark moments, such as when the intellectual Dan suffers the agonies of a man alone, watching his overgrown college jock brother enjoying life with the woman he adores, and borrowing phrases from his own writing to woo her. The laughs are only part of the deal. And when Dans parents take him into the laundry room for a heart-to-heart, the scene develops in tragicomic fashion, as the extended family enter in droves, each offering their own opinion.
Whether director Peter Hedges, who previously directed the equally excellent dysfunctional family comedy Pieces of April, had Woody Allen in mind, in the bathetic tone of the film, who knows? But its certainly sharper than anything Woodys done in a good few years.