Oh, the irony of this movie’s title. There is nothing remotely real about Dan in Real Life, a false, emotionally manipulative dramedy that squanders the impressive seriocomic chops that Steve Carell demonstrated in Little Miss Sunshine, and strands such talented actors as Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney and Juliette Binoche in the midst of one of the most cloying and unbelievable families depicted in recent movies. Co-writer and director Hedges peddled similar TV-movie sentimentality with his atrocious debut feature, Pieces of April, and here he can’t even hide under that film’s rough, indie-film grittiness. Real Life looks exactly like the soulless Hollywood product it is, not even approaching the emotional depths of the average episode of 7th Heaven.
That Carell is able to make newspaper advice columnist Dan Burns even somewhat likable is a testament to the actor’s charisma, since Dan engages in stupid and insensitive behavior almost from the moment that he shows up at his parents’ Rhode Island house for an annual family-reunion weekend. A widower raising three daughters on his own, Dan starts out as a fairly typical lunkheaded sitcom-style dad, unable to deal with one daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and another daughter’s desire to get her driver’s license; at this point, he could easily be played by Tim Allen.
But on a trip into town for a newspaper, Dan runs into Marie (Binoche), with whom he makes an immediate connection. He returns to the family home only to discover that—what a coincidence!—Marie is actually the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Cook). The rest of the film finds Dan and Marie in increasingly awkward situations as they try to stifle their chemistry, while all the other family members deliver warmed-over platitudes and engage in endless togetherness activities (charades, crossword puzzles, a talent show) that serve as lazy set pieces to deliver clumsily expository dialogue.
As winning as Carell is, Dan is fundamentally a creep, and it doesn’t help that Carell and Binoche have no chemistry. A great dramatic actress, Binoche is rather a failure at comedy, and Cook is a failure at pretty much everything. None of the characters behave in a way that even approaches believability, and for a film that is supposed to be life-affirming and heartwarming, Real Life has about as much genuine feeling as a cheap greeting card.
Dan in Real Life
Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook
Directed by Peter Hedges