November 1, 2007

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Dan in Real Life (PG-13)
Steve Carell is so much more than just a sitcom guy and proves it again with Dan in Real Life, a movie that is infinitely better than it should be because Carellís at the helm.

I love Carellís Michael Scott, the big-headed, empty-headed boss on The Office, and his supporting roles in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He is the perfect clown in these parts ó using his blank face and its confused expression to excellent effect.

On its face, The 40-Year-Old Virgin might seem like a similarly goofball role. But there, his boy-ish Andy had plenty of man in him. He was sexually immature but had a kind of self-awareness that far out-shone his pack of feral man-boy friends. In Little Miss Sunshine, Carellís Frank dropped the goof altogether to give us a portrait of almost pure grief. Both of these take skill and ability to work with nuance that one might not expect of a sitcom actor. (Might not expect but probably should; comedy ó good comedy ó can be much harder than drama.)

Here, Dan (Carell) is wound tightly in a way not identical to Andy or Frank but with problems both would recognize and understand. Though regularly advising people on love and life in his newspaper column, Dan, we suspect, is just barely holding it together in his own life. A single dad since the death of his wife four years ago, Dan seems to have held grief at bay by focusing on his girls ó the nearly out of high school Jane (Alison Pill), the flirtier headstrong younger teen Cara (Brittany Robinson) and Lily (Marlene Lawston), the baby who, now in fourth grade, no longer wants to be treated like a baby. The girls feel they could use a little less fatherly focus. Jane wants her dad to let her drive (and maybe to consider her future enrollment in a cross-country college). Cara is crazy, hopelessly, teenagerly in love with a boy and dramatically tells her father that he could never understand the depth of her, like, love. Itís with these two disgruntled girls and his rather resigned younger daughter that Dan heads from his home in New Jersey to Rhode Island and his parentsí house on the beach. All of Danís brothers and sisters (and brothers in law and sisters in law ó itís hard to tell whoís who) meet up in a Thanksgiving-style family weekend of meals and pleasant bickering and touch football (which is the go-to family activity in movies like this).

Danís parents can see the wear on him and, the morning he arrives, his mother (Dianne Wiest) shoos him out to get some newspaper. While wandering around the bookstore, Dan spots a cute woman (Juliette Binoche) in need of literary assistance. Dan helps her pick out some books and, after heís unmasked as not working there, they continue their conversation. Though itís only an hour or so, Dan finds himself opening up and probably falling in love. She gives him her number and, even though she has a boyfriend and tells Dan that she has a boyfriend, she encourages him to call her.

Dan returns back to the family all flushed with this strange new experience of meeting someone and, just as he tells his brothers about this hot new girl he met, in walks Marie, his brother Mitchís (Dane Cook) girlfriend and the bookstore hottie herself.

What follows are a series of scenes where Dan gets progressively crazier as he tries not to give in to his growing attraction to Marie, who seems just as drawn to Dan. A truly good guy, Dan doesnít want to take his brotherís girl. And, the more his family seems to fall in love with Marie, the more unlikely it seems that she can make the switch to the correct brother. These scenes could have been a mishmash of forced wackiness and sitcomy gags but Carell makes it work. He has the knack for being happy and sad at the same time and making this emotion feel as complex radiating out of him as it would be if you were experiencing such turmoil yourself. Carell lets Dan get school-boy giggly over Marie but then pulls him back to parenthood and responsibility when his daughters weigh in on his failings.

Even more impressive ó Carell is able to show us both Dan falling in love with Marie and Dan still in love with his dead wife. His character is able to ache for her and still long for Marie. During one scene, Dan helps Mitch sing ďLet My Love Open the DoorĒ and then takes it over. He almost cracks but doesnít quite while singing both to Marie and to his lost wife. Itís gimmicky, sure, and the scene seems like the kind of thing that would make someone allergic to sappiness hate the film but I found it surprisingly touching.

All this is a pretty rare trick in any love story but especially in a movie that spends so much of its time with the kind of comedy found all over The Family Stone and The Wedding Crashers and every other movie where attractive well-to-do parents and their attractive well-to-do adult children spend an afternoon reenacting some photo-perfect fantasy of the Kennedys at Hyannisport.

For, while Carell is genuine and complex and multi-dimensional, the rest of the movie is not. Itís not a bad movie, not as off-putting as, say, The Family Stone, but it feels false comparatively. Carellís lines seem, for the most part, like realistic speech; his children seem like actors reciting dialogue. Thereís a level of naturalness that Carell has throughout this film thatís just never really matched by any of the other actors (though, points to Dane Cook for being blessedly low-key). He operates at an ďAĒ; everyone else, even Binoche, cruises somewhere around a C+.

Dan in Real Life is no The 40-Year-Old Virgin but it isnít Evan Almighty either. What the movie does best is argue for a better appreciation of Steve Carell. B-

Rated PG-13 for some innuendo. Directed by Peter Hedges and written by Pierce Gardner and Hedges, Dan in Real Life is an hour and 38 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Buena Vista Pictures.