If I can think of one genre so tired, so worn out in today's cinema, it's the romantic comedy. Good news everyone, Dan in Real Life is different. Dan writes a successful newspaper column and has his hands full with his three young daughters. Having lost his wife some years ago, Dan bides his time, doing the best he can at keeping his family happy. But it's home for the holidays as Dan and his girls head to his parent’s house for Thanksgiving.
The movie is amusingly set up with various realistic antics caused by each of his children. Dan takes each barrel of teenaged angst with a nod and smile. Once at his parent’s house (Is this house real? I mean how big is it?) Dan feels like he'll be cut a little slack, with his daughters busy in family tradition.
Soon, Dan is in a book store and meets Marie. They engage in a memorable conversation that he cherishes. Once he gets home he realizes that his new love interest is, you guessed it, his brother's girlfriend.
That's the set up. From then on, Dan and Marie fight what they feel, and believe me, their battles are real and often funny. Several things help to make this picture good. The first is the introduction of Dan's brother, Mitch, played by the hyperactive Dane Cook. When we first meet Mitch, we barely see his face, we just hear a few words from him off camera. It is nothing short of refreshing to NOT have someone as bland as Cook immediately thrown in your face. Instead, Cook gives a controlled performance that previews that he may have more to offer than his typical, gross-out humor.
Another wonder is the casting of Juliette Binoche. Usually thrown more heavy-handed work, Binoche shines as Marie. She brings her reserved sexuality and tenderness to a role that is usually riddled with formula. Binoche gives Marie a heart and more importantly an adult conscience capable of making adult choices.
While the film does suffer a few clichés, it remains as entertaining a romantic comedy as I've ever seen. Steve Carell is a brilliant comedian, but here he stretches like he did in last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. A sit-down chat with his daughters affirms the fact that this is the best work Carell has ever done. He leaves his trademark quirkiness aside (don't worry there is still some) and replaces it with need.
In a genre usually reserved for twenty something characters who have no life worries except for themselves, Dan in Real Life succeeds at being different. The beauty of the film is that you get to see two adult people in adult situations that take rationality into account, but still make a lovingly amusing mess for themselves. B+