"Dan in Real Life" is a sitcom fighting to discover its own identity. A film with a peculiar improvisational energy running through its veins, "Dan" is a delightful motion picture, especially when it combats the fatigue of formula, trying to smuggle in astute characterizations between moments of traditional Hollywood romantic comedy hoo-ha.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a popular newspaper columnist, a lonely widower, and a father to three girls in all stages of growing pains. Packing up the clan to head to his parents' house for a yearly family reunion (including John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest), Dan is thrust into the whirlwind of his brothers and sisters, who all want the best for his heart. Sojourning to a local book store, Dan encounters Marie (Juliette Binoche), and the two strike up immediate romantic chemistry. Returning home with renewed hope for himself in the relationship department, Dan's fragile life is crushed when Marie arrives at the house as well, only as the new girlfriend to his brother Mitch (Dane Cook).
Most of the emotional heavy lifting found in "Dan" is accomplished by Carell and his ease with wounded moments or acts of humiliation. A relative newcomer to leading roles, Carell pulls off the complicated internal processes of Dan without relying on his famous comedic shtick. Sure, there are scenes that require Carell to dance his way out of a crisis, and I'd be lying if I didn't mention how glad I was to see the actor adding his own bit of funny business to dull the jagged pieces of formula that are scattered precariously around the picture; however, Dan's troubles are the organic stuff romantic comedies are made of and Carell makes his own choices here. His skill at expressing Dan's desires, resentment, and disgust are truly gifted bits of acting.
It also helps Carell's efforts to have such impossibly lovely chemistry with Binoche, who captivatingly giggles and winces her way around a rare American production. Deserving an Oscar for her ability to sell a romantic relationship with Dane Cook, Binoche smolders and whimpers her way around "Dan," and her scenes with Carell play both comedically and authentically as constipated acts of affection.
What director Peter Hedges ("Pieces of April") creates out of "Dan" is a demonstrative environment of family, achieved by encouraging his actors to interact loosely, stepping over each other's lines and improvising to achieve a familial history. It's almost Altmanesque in the crisscross execution, and the unchained vigor elevates the film away from cliché, surprising the viewer with such a resonant breath of life inside the frame, not to mention deepening the characterization of Dan as he fights not only his tender heart but the crushing attention of his siblings. "Dan" struggles with an emotional reality most of the running time, leaving the touch of spontaneity that emanates from Hedges welcome and supportive in extending the freshness of the material.
"Dan" feels like it's in a hurry to end right from the start, sprinting through the conflicts and resolutions anxiously, revealing some editorial leaps in the process. The climax is a familiar sight of romantic comedy chase, and deflates the experience to a certain degree, stopping just short of the obvious. Actually, the restraint of the ending reveals just how hard Hedges was working to save his picture from the razor-sharp jaws of cliché, instead focusing on a sweetened, human snapshot of a man finding love again and fighting for his chance for happiness.
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