Dan in Real Life

Romantic comedy

  • Written by Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
  • Directed by Peter Hedges

Peter Hedges does something unusual here. He puts a major comedy star (Steve Carell) into a conventional comic plot (widower with adorable kids falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend), then plays it for real emotions without worrying much about laughs. Instead of a comedy, he’s made a wistful slice of life’s joys and pains, filled with people who remind you of your own friends and family.

And on those not-so-rare occasions when Dan in Real Life chooses to make you laugh, it’s unforced, natural, and comes from a place deep within yourself.

Carell plays a widowed parental advice columnist. He dotes over his three daughters and loves them very much, but he’s over-protective and tries to hold them back from growing up. He also seems reluctant to return to the dating scene four years after his wife’s death. Once again, Carell brilliantly plays a guy with a little more intelligence than the average Joe, and a little less chutzpah and self-awareness.

At a rare private moment away from a family reunion, he meets and flirts with a woman (Juliette Binoche as Marie), only to discover later that she’s his brother’s new girlfriend. The rest of the reunion gets a little strained.

Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner don’t take the easy way out. When a character does something suprising, it’s an interesting complication, not a convenient plot device. The brother’s a nice guy, not a jerk. In fact, the whole family may be the nicest, most supportive, and least dysfunctional family in an American comedy since Mickey Rooney stopped playing Andy Hardy.

Which isn’t to say these folks can’t be infuriating, barging into each other’s private conversations and meddling far more than adults should. But it’s all done with love and genuine concern for the other’s well-being. And even the little kids ring true.

Several wonderful comedies came out this year. Odd that one of the least funny is still one of the best.