Starring: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison
Pill, Brittany Robertson. Rated PG-13.
There are moments when Steve Carell’s Dan, the beleaguered
widower and father of three who spends much of Dan in Real Life not so secretly pining after the lovely but
unavailable Juliette Binoche, loses his cool. They are quite obviously scripted
moments, as an elegantly understated romance veers ever so briefly into the
world of abrasive slapstick, and they hit all the wrong notes. Dan is many
things – bitter, depressed and overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a single
dad – but he’s not stupid.
in Real Life is
best when it remembers that, when it respects the intelligence of its
characters enough not to subject them to scenarios that feel conspicuously
fabricated. Here, after all, is a rarity – a genuinely touching comedy that
resists the urge to lean too heavily on its brand-name stars, Carell and
comedian Dane Cook.
Neither is playing exactly to type: Carell’s languid
melancholy seems less a lighthearted put-on than his deadpan turn in The
40-Year-Old Virgin or his boorish
buffoonery in The Office, while
Cook is a portrait of restraint, a far cry from his normally manic self. Both
keep the action moving at a brisk pace (with Cook excelling in a smaller but
substantial role) but it is the charming, intelligent rapport between Dan
(Carell) and Marie (Binoche) that proves the film’s greatest strength.
From the moment
they meet – in predictably cute fashion at a
small-town Rhode Island bookstore – Dan and Marie seem destined to end up in
each other’s arms, provided she can get a word in edgewise. (Dan spends their
initial meeting recounting his life story; had he asked, he might have learned
that Marie was en route to meeting her new boyfriend – Dan’s brother, Mitch –
at a semi-annual family reunion.)
Already sinking under the weight of parental responsibility
– at least two of his daughters think he’s hopelessly out of touch – Dan
doesn’t handle the revelation well. When he’s not brooding, he acts out in ways
that seem uncharacteristically petulant, but it is the quieter moments he
shares with Marie that make their burgeoning romance convincing. Clearly, she’s
with the wrong guy. The only question is when she’ll take enough time away from
Mitch and Dan’s weekend of family-oriented fun (highlighted, no less, by an
elaborate talent show) to figure it out.
If this all sounds a tad precious, it doesn't feel that way.
Carell and Binoche keep the mood effectively light, with a little help from John Mahoney, who has built a cottage industry
in recent years plaing semi-gruff, painfully honest fathers. Together, they let the good-natured humor in Peter Hedges and
Pierce Gardner's script breathe, and the result is a funny and engaging comedy that strikes enough high notes as one of the
season's most pleasant surprises.