It usually takes a lot of unpleasantness to create a film that’s worthwhile. A film like No Country for Old Men is a lot better than a film like Alvin and the Chipmunks and the unpleasantness factor should not be ignored when it comes to determining the grading criteria. Unpleasant characters and situations make for a better story – they create conflict, they create drama, they create scenarios where the director and actors are forced to take risks.
Dan in Real Life features no such scenario – it’s as pleasant a movie as you will ever find, and yet it manages to be a worthwhile film at the same time. Rather than veer into the territory of saccharine nonsense that keeps so many romantic comedies from retaining any entertainment value whatsoever, Dan in Real Life strives to mirror what its title suggests – real life.
It’s not always as successful at this as it could be. The screenplay too often wavers between inflections of indie dramedy and sitcom-style goofiness – sticking with the former would have served the material better. But the screenplay is the weakest element of Dan in Real Life. The performances are wonderfully pleasant across the board. Steve Carell plays the wounded, yet amiable Dan Burns superbly, and he demonstrates, as he did in Little Miss Sunshine, that he can deftly walk the line between drama and comedy.
The rest of the cast fits in nicely, with the radiant Juliette Binoche ever believable as the woman caught between the affections of two Burns brothers. Great character actors John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest do a lot with their small roles as the Burns patriarch and matriarch. Even Dane Cook does a serviceable job as the third member of the love triangle, managing to limit his annoying grandstanding to just a few scenes.
But the character that really brings the film to life is the house in which it was shot. Director Peter Hedges allows the large house to become as important to the fabric of his fictional family as the actors who play the family members. Each scene inside the house is blocked superbly – the claustrophobia Dan feels in one scene as a result of his prying and overbearing family intruding into the laundry room where he sleeps is completely tangible. Hedges’ camera moves gracefully through the old New England abode, and the difference between using this actual location as opposed to a set is undeniable.
Ultimately, Dan in Real Life is the kind of film that doesn’t hide where it’s going to end up very well. But that’s okay. Sentimentality is not used as a substitute for real emotion and the penultimate scenes with Dan and his daughters are truly touching. A couple more script rewrites wouldn’t have hurt, but a standout performance from Carell and excellent direction from Hedges make Dan in Real Life a winner.
The DVD comes with a good amount of special features, including an audio commentary track by writer/director Peter Hedges, deleted scenes with Hedges’ optional commentary, and several minutes of mostly unfunny outtakes.
Two featurettes — “Just Like Family: The Making of Dan in Real Life” and “Handmade Music: Creating the Score” — are both rather interesting. The former is your standard “making-of” featurette, but it’s got good interviews and the type of interesting production information you might normally have to sit through the feature-length commentary to learn. The latter is about Norwegian artist Sondre Lerche’s score. Hedges picked the pop-folk musician to handcraft the entire score – it’s definitely one of the film’s strengths. Lerche has a small cameo near the end of the film as well.
Dan in Real Life — yeah, it’s a pleasant movie. What’s it to you?