Dan in Real Life

<i>This is a review I wrote the morning after the premiere. Our student newspaper opted not to use it, but the staff review turned out rather similar to my own, so I suppose it didn’t lose much.</i>

The term “movie star” is so cliché that one can easily forget it’s actually a metaphor. Yesterday, Steve Carell reminded me. He effortlessly illuminates all his scenes and attracts us to his presence. “Dan in Real Life” is a straightforward movie with familiar set pieces, but it feels fresh thanks to its star’s unique abilities. I simply love watching him react to things. His actions are so comprehensible yet also incredible.

Despite his portrayals of extremely awkward characters like Brick in “Anchorman” and Michael in “The Office,” Carell seems more tranquil than other comedians who have ventured into drama. He’s very different from Jim Carrey, who needs pictures that are as manic as he is. He’s a contrast to most other stars, actually. He seems to have a sense of balance, and he has enough emotional control that he contributes to scenes even when he doesn’t have any lines.

This film is also a good landing place for Dane Cook, who has started to wear on the nerves this fall (did you know that in the calendar year, there’s only ONE October?). His likable but lexically limited character is perfect for him. Juliette Binoche is perfect as the forty-ish ingénue. The best actors besides Carell, though, are his three daughters. Their artificial resentment for their doting father is well-expressed, and writers Pierce Gardner and Paul Hedges have a good ear for their dialogue. It’s entertaining but also realistically juvenile. The rest of the ensemble adequately fills in the blanks.

I just noticed I haven’t described the plot. Here it is: Steve Carell is a widower with three children who falls in love at first sight with brother Dane Cook’s girlfriend, Binoche. Could the screenplay work with different actors? Perhaps. Carell’s character would not be as sympathetic: his character’s decisions are never wrong, but they are sometimes questionable. The plot’s engine, a Thanksgiving weekend for a high-maintenance East Coast family at a beautiful Rhode Island beach house, is getting familiar (“Pieces of April,” “The Wedding Crashers,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” “The Family Stone”) but is not worn out yet. The soundtrack, written and performed by Sondre Lerche, is pleasant Norwegian indie that buoys the mood.

Juliette Binoche, talking about a book she wants but also describing what the author wants the movie to be, says, “I want something that’s funny, but not necessarily ha-ha-ha funny, more…human funny…something to sweep me off my feet.” “Dan in Real Life” won’t sweep many people off their feet, but it does have poignant moments. If you want an agreeable date movie, or if you want to see a star in fine form, I recommend this film.

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