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"Dan in Real Life" Review Complete

By admin Published: October 26, 2007

If you've read my review of "Dan in Real Life" in today's Beacon Journal, you're fine. If you tried to read the post at today, you may have been surprised that it ended in mid-sentence. Several paragraphs are not visible, so I am posting the complete review -- what was on the Web and the missing conclusion -- and a few notes after the jump. ...

Before I reproduce the review, I should mention a couple of things. First, if you read my recent rant about people talking at shows, you might think I'm beating that horse again. But in this case, as I said in the review, I saw this restlessness as an indication of some spectators' reaction to the movie.

Second, "Dan" was a movie about which I had some complicated reactions. I usually do with movies and shows dealing with families and the loss of a spouse, having spent years in that territory myself. Dan got some things right on that score, and I felt a bit more favorably inclined toward it when I left the theater than I did by the time I sat down to write my review the next day. That happens sometimes, both ways; I've had movies that improved as I thought more about them. ("Into the Wild" is a recent example.) Anyway, this is what ended up in the newspaper:

During a screening of "Dan in Real Life" on Tuesday night, three young women moved from their seats to the lobby, back to their seats and back to the lobby, and back to their seats again. Another woman fielded cell phone calls, moving from her seat to the ramp leading into the theater, presumably so she could still see the screen without disturbing the people around her. (Even from the ramp, she was still audible, though.)

I expect more of the same from audiences for "Dan in Real Life," as long as there are audiences: curiosity about the film and where it's going, but some impatience with the way it gets there.

Part of this stems from the promotion of the movie, which suggests something in the farcical tradition of previous Steve Carell comedies such as "Evan Almighty" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." But Dan is in fact a more wistful, serious creation, closer in attitude to one of the more somber, love-centered episodes of Carell's sitcom "The Office," or to Woody Allen comedies such as "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall."

As the movie begins, Dan and daughters are heading to a Rhode Island beach house for the annual family gathering overseen by Dan's parents (John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest). It's a house full of siblings, spouses, children and noise, and it's about to get more crowded, because Dan's brother Mitch (Dane Cook) has invited a lady friend.

On an errand, Dan encounters Marie (Juliette Binoche), an enchanting woman who, for the first time since the death of Dan's wife, brings up Dan's old feelings of emotional connection. But she has another commitment and cannot linger. And wise audiences will immediately know that Marie is Mitch's lady friend, and awkwardness is about to ensue.

Ensue it does, as Dan tries to control his feelings about Marie, who is also attracted to Dan, but with Mitch, who is of course oblivious to what is going on. Dan is trapped in unrequited, adolescent frenzy, especially when he sees how physically comfortable Marie and Mitch are with each other. At the same time, though, "Dan in Real Life" recognizes that Marie is also sorting out her feelings, and that she fumes when it appears Dan is interested in someone else.

Carell and Binoche are both quite good, especially when it comes to wordlessly conveying a range of emotions. Under the direction of Peter Hedges (who co-wrote the script with Pierce Gardner), all the cast avoids overplaying, keeping their feelings recognizable and trying never to force a joke.

That said, there are too many forced jokes, including a running bit about Dan's driving that grows increasingly absurd on its way to a so-so payoff. Again, Dan in Real Life tries not to make too much of its sillier parts; a scene where Dan and Marie are trapped in a shower together has a strong current of embarrassment and humiliation.

But instead of opting for drama, it seems compelled to make such jokes -- which have been duly promoted to get people to see the movie -- only to back away from the comic extremes the audience has come to expect.

As I said, it has some good things, starting with the performances of Carell and Binoche. It well understands the ache inside Dan; a scene in which Dan and Mitch sing Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" is quite touching. And the music by singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche is engaging enough to send me looking for more of his work.

But overall "Dan in Real Life" is at best a pleasant diversion, and not of the kind some of its advertising has promised.

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