Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dan in Real Life (2007, Peter Hedges)

I don't know what it is, but I sort of balked at this when I saw how ridiculously happy this extended family was. To me, the portrait of a resolutely upper-class family that gets together at grandma and grandpa's fashionably rustic beach house and plays charades and has boys-vs.-girls crosswords competitions and runs a family talent show sort of makes me balk. It's not that I doubt families this happy exist- more that I can't help but shake the feeling that Hedges makes everything feel so warm and friendly so he won't complicate the main storyline. I mean, come on- there's not even really a scene of someone making derogatory remarks behind someone else's back, and no matter how happy a family is, there's ALWAYS bound to be some of that. But I think this is emblematic of something I resist in both of the films Hedges has directed to date- a tendency to freeze out the messy background stuff, the better to focus on the often contrived setups. Dan in Real Life isn't as annoyingly contrived as Pieces of April (really, how could it be?), but the writing of the film feels unnecessarily writer-ly. Even setting aside the setup- Dan (Steve Carell) meets the perfect woman (Juliette Binoche), who turns out to be his brother's girlfriend- everything in this movie feels like setup-and-payoff, and as a result nothing really breathes. Consider the blind date Dan's parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) set him up on with a local girl- before she shows up, Dan's brothers give Dan a hard time about what the girl looked like when she was younger, in particular an unflattering nickname she had, "Pigface." Soon, they sit down at the piano and improvise a song around the nickname, and keep on going until she knocks on the door and reveals herself to be... Emily Blunt. Ho, ho! Surprise, everybody! Also, Binoche is so obviously perfect for Carell that the plot mostly becomes a game of waiting for them to overcome the stuff that gets thrown at them and make the leap. That said, once you get past the contrivances and Hedges' occasional tendency to shoot his goodwill in the ass, the movie does have a certain charm, owing largely to Carell and Binoche, who are relaxed and engaging individually and have real chemistry together. Ebert is spot-on when he compares Carell to a young Jack Lemmon- he can do the fussy and the neurotic stuff (I'd love to see him and, say, John C. Reilly or even Seth Rogen do The Odd Couple onstage) but he brings a real humanity to all of the performances I've seen. Even Dane Cook is surprisingly watchable here, when the massive self-involvement he always projects isn't getting in the way. For a movie that was always coming thiiiiiiiiis close to annoying me, I enjoyed Dan in Real Life more than I expected. Rating: 5 out of 10.


James said...

You know what bothered me that we haven't talked about yet? How that when the whole family stumbles upon the two kissing (what a clumsy fucking scene), Dane Cook punches Steve Carrell in the face, and that's it. No serious apology, no working it out, nothing.

Now, I know that banging Emily Blunt is a pretty good way to help get over grief, but a simple blow to the face seems like, well, a pretty low price for Steve to pay. That's what all this sneaking around was about, avoiding a ten minute fuss?

Paul C. said...

That's just another example of how afraid this movie of real tension. It's so intent on making us feel all warm and cuddly about its characters- even Dan himself, put upon though he is- that it never lets them stay mad for very long. Yeah, I know Dane Cook later says, "if it was anybody else..." but I know that if my brother stole my girlfriend away from me, I might actually take it harder than if it was anybody else. Some random guy can't necessarily be expected to care about your feelings, but family should know better.

Also, I'm guessing that banging Emily Blunt is a damn fine way to get over grief. I'll have to try it sometime.

Jason_alley2 said...

Maybe I'm a cold-hearted bastard, but this movie (and this family in particular) annoyed the crap out of me. I was one sack race away from walking out.

Also, I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't see why so many people bag on "Pieces Of April". It wasn't a GREAT movie, but I like it and could buy an estranged daughter trying to re-connect with her family by cooking Thanksgiving dinner and the subtly conveyed troubles of her parents (Platt and especially Clarkson were great I thought) much more easily than these impossibly cheerful WASP-y Brady Bunch wannabes (and their ability to magically appear, en masse, in bowling alleys at precisely the wrong moment).