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Dan in Real Life resembles real life in only the worst way: It’s as bland as your workweek is long. But it’s a romantic comedy, so reality really should have little to do with it, anyway—and indeed, overall, it’s sitcom-ready. Only the sitcom approach doesn’t work.
Like Sleuth, a love triangle is at the heart of Dan in Real Life, though without the jousting for a woman. There’s just Dan (Steve Carell), a sad-sack advice columnist who’s raising his three daughters alone since his wife died. While in Rhode Island for a reunion with his overbearing family, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore.
They get on fabulously, but she’s taken, so they say goodbye. And then hello: Back at the cabin, Marie is re-introduced to Dan as the new girlfriend of his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Right before that, Dan was beaming that he’d met someone—the fam gets seriously on his case for being alone—but, of course, he never lets on that it’s Marie. Oh, what miserable/hilarious misunderstandings lay ahead!
Dan in Real Life was directed and co-written by Peter Hedges, whose edgier 2003 film, Pieces of April, also had some made-for-TV moments but then stunned you with an emotional wallop. (Also scripting is Pierce Gardner, whose 2000 film, Lost Souls, is one of the most dreadful movies ever made.) With this film, Hedges tries to counter broad comedy with low-key performances. Dan’s gigantic extended family, headed by Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney, is maddening in their cheery preciousness, not only possessing no sense of boundaries (ha-ha, look at how they all crowd Dan’s room to talk about his lack of sex!) but also so fun-fun-fun that their gatherings include talent shows, gender-divided crossword competitions, and—ugh—aerobics classes in which they each take turns leading while a feel-good song plays. In contrast, Dan and Marie are normal, though that normalcy predominantly translates into his passivity and her sainthood.
Anyone who’s seen Evan Almighty knows that Carell’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean huge laughs, and there really aren’t any here. (Small charms, yes, but also big saccharine moments.) It’s not all bad: The chemistry between Carell and Binoche is the truest part of the film, and parents might respond to Dan’s difficulty with his daughters. (“You’re a good father, but sometimes you’re a bad dad,” the youngest whimpers. Aww.) That’s not to say that Dan in Real Life won’t be a crowd-pleaser, though. In fact, its very innocuousness nearly guarantees it.