Dan in Real Life
March 12, 2008
While it’s true that many “serious” actors try their hand at comedy (or, in the case of Alec Baldwin and Robert De Niro, make a career out of it), it is equally true that many comedic actors want to be taken seriously. Some, like Bill Murray and Robin Williams have been very successful. Others, like Steve Martin and Jim Carrey, have had limited success. Recently, funnyman Steve Carell tried his hand at something a little different by doing a film that straddles the line between comedy and drama and hit the jackpot in the process with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – the little independent film that could, playing a suicidal literary professor. He’s at it again with Dan in Real Life (2007) which leans much closer to the comedy side of things than the dramatic but it is much more character-driven than gag-driven.
Dan Burns (Carell) writes an advice column for a New Jersey newspaper while also raising three daughters who are a handful to say the least. He packs them all up in the car and goes to his parents for the annual family reunion. After settling in, Dan takes a trip to a bookstore and helps a woman named Anne-Marie (Binoche) find some books. He invites her to a coffeehouse where they talk for hours and he finds himself opening up to her. They seem to have made a real connection. The only problem is that she’s already in a relationship with – get ready for it: his brother Mitch (Cook). The revelation makes for an awkward and interesting weekend as Dan keeps his attraction to Marie from his family which, of course, only complicates things.
As he proved with Pieces of April (2003), director Peter Hedges has a knack for depicting the interacies of family dynamics. He’s not afraid to show awkward and uncomfortable moments because that’s what happens when you get a family of any decent size together – all the old feuds come bubbling to the surface. With a large cast of characters and plenty of overlapping dialogue, Hedges seems to be influenced by Robert Altman with a dash of family dysfunction from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
As he demonstrated with his performance in Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell knows how to dial down his wacky, comedic nature and play things more low-key. This role is much larger and allows him to show more range as he portrays a conflicted character. Dan finally finds someone he has a meaningful connection with but she’s involved with his brother so he can’t tell anyone because of the potential damage it will cause. Of course, the longer he keeps it to himself, the more it is tearing him up inside and Carell does an excellent job conveying this internal struggle and how it comes to the surface in all sorts of funny and unusual ways. He plays a nice guy but not a bland one as is often the cliché when comedians try to dial down their more manic instincts. However, there are a few moments where Carell is allowed to cut loose a little, like a scene where Dan goes on a blind date with Mitch and Marie and they all end up dancing to “Nasty Girl” by Inaya Day on the jukebox. Carell shows off his physical comedy skills but doesn’t go too wild, making it feel like a spontaneous act.
Hedges avoids the usual cliché of having the flawed brother be a jerk so that we are inclined to root for Dan. Comedian Dane Cook plays Mitch as a nice guy who is funny and seems to genuinely love Marie. Carell proves yet again what a wonderful sad clown he can be as he plays an advice columnist who doesn’t always adhere to his own advice. Sadly, Juliette Binoche’s character is rather two-dimensional and more scenes that explored her background would have been a nice addition. That being said, Dan in Real Life provides all kinds of emotional layers that people love to enjoy in this kind of a film. There are many real moments that illustrate just how messy and complicated life can be.
“Just Like Family: The Making of Dan in Real Life” takes a look at how this film came together. Hedges himself was raised by a single parent – his father – and sees this film as a tribute to him. The cast gush about working with Hedges and praises his collaborative spirit. This featurette also takes a look at the house where most of the action takes place and Hedges says that he wanted it to be like another character.
“Handmade Music: Creating the Score” takes a look at the film’s soundtrack. Hedges says that he finds most American films to be over-scored and wanted to go for a more minimal soundtrack. He wanted what music there would be to be like another character and picked musician Sondre Lerche to do it. Lerche talks about his approach to composing the songs for the film.
Also included are 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Hedges. He puts these scenes in context and explains why they were cut. There is a lot more interaction between Dan and his daughters. Hedges is honest about why this footage was cut (he blames his weak direction for one).
There is the obligatory “Outtakes” reel with the cast blowing their lines when someone else makes them laugh. There is lots of goofing around on the set, mostly by Dane Cook and Carell.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Peter Hedges. Originally, he was hired to polish an existing screenplay but after working on it for five months, the studio liked it so much that they asked him to direct. At one point he says that the film is about how we find love again and is it possible? Hedges talks about filming certain scenes and his intentions behind them. He also touches upon shaping the film through editing in this fairly engaging track.