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Dan in Real Life

As a surprisingly engaging romantic comedy starring an unlikely romantic lead, Dan in Real Life warms your heart in all the right places. And makes you want to eat pancakes.


Come on, doesn't the movie poster just make you want to order buttermilk pancakes with loads of butter and syrup? Minus Steve Carell's forlorn head resting on top of the stack, of course. This poster is actually a true representation of Dan in Real Life. The film's message is that life can be full of sweet, yummy—and, yes, even messy—things; you only have to wake up and smell the maple syrup. This pertains to Dan Burns (Carell), a family-advice columnist who is still reeling from the death of his wife four years earlier. He finds it hard to cope, especially in dealing with his three rebellious daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston), who wish he'd just get a life already. So to get away from it all, he coerces the girls into going to the annual Burns family reunion in the country, a boisterous bunch who are nonetheless worried about poor Dan. But as fate would have it, while on an errand, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in the local bookstore and sparks fly. It's the first time he has felt anything for another woman, and it's exciting—until he finds out Marie is actually his little brother Mitch's (Dane Cook) new girlfriend, here to meet the family for the first time. Oops. Dan and Marie then spend the entire weekend trying to squelch and cover up their growing mutual attraction, but it's no use.


Steve Carell certainly seems to be multifaceted. First, he succeeds with the R-rated raunchy comedy (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), then the quirky R-rated indie thing (Little Miss Sunshine). He stumbled a little with the PG-family fare (Evan Almighty), but now the funnyman tries his hand at the PG-13 romantic comedy—and scores once again. You can see how Carell might be good in a rom-com from his sweet performance in Virgin, but he is able to soar in Dan in Real Life, incorporating his trademark reactionary techniques while turning in a genuine portrayal of a widower trying to move on--with or without the help of his intrusive, albeit loving, family. Binoche is right there with Carell every step of the way. The French actress is terribly endearing as Marie, and when she can't control herself from cracking up at Carell's antics, you know it's for real. The three young actresses playing Dan's daughters--Pill (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen), as the oldest about to leave the nest; Robertson (Keeping Up with the Steins) as the middle pubescent and reigning drama queen; and little Lawston (Flightplan) as the pre-teen who still loves her daddy--also all do a nice job. Same goes for comedian Cook as Dan's flighty younger brother, Dianne Weist and John Mahoney as Dan's buttinsky parents—and a glammed-up Emily Blunt (Devil Wears Prada) as Dan's blind date, a girl Dan and his siblings used to call "Pig-Nosed Ruthie."


On the surface, Dan in Real Life does seem like it would be a bit mushy, a film that could easily lapse into corny pitfalls and over-weepy "family" moments. But in the hands of writer/director Peter Hedges, it's easy to see why Dan works: The guy knows how to craft scenes and write engaging dialogue without slipping into clichés. Just look at Hedges' short but impressive writing résumé of winning, intimate films--such as Pieces of April (which he also directed), About a Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape--to understand his talent. Dan follows suit. By centering the action on this one vacation, Hedges introduces you to a family anyone should be able to relate to in one form or another. Immediately recognizable are the dynamics between the Burns siblings, the cousins, the parents and their kids, which in turn allows for all those wacky, unpredictable, tender moments of familial bonding. The Burns family is particularly high on playing games and singing impromptu songs, especially the one Dan's brothers sing, about his imminent blind date with Ruthie. Good times. Throw in the undeniable chemistry of a good romantic comedy and you've got Dan in Real Life.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.