James L. Brooks didn’t invent the dramedy with Terms of Endearment, but it’s hard to imagine the seriocomic, quirk-laden likes of Steel Magnolias, Parenthood, Home for the Holidays, The Family Stone and, now, Dan in Real Life existing without it. These are films that aim for laughter through the tears. They want to broadly, but truthfully depict the lunatic devotion of family, the way we love, fight, stumble, sever and reconnect. They want to celebrate the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of unthinkable tragedy. They want to win Oscars and be watched by fathers and mothers and sons and daughters (and their sons and daughters) every holiday season.
Any family that would gather to watch any of the above titles once a year is one from which I would be happily estranged. They’re a sickness – which, coincidentally, is typically the rallying device these films deploy in their second act. So kudos to Peter Hedges’s Dan in Real Life for killing off it’s titular sad-sack’s wife before the opening credits! And that’s not quite the extent of this film’s feints at originality. Before hurtling the viewer into a familiar, morning-routine-as-character-introduction sequence, Hedges allows his lead, the cinematically unsettled Steve Carell (he’s all good on television), a precious few seconds to convey poor Dan Burns’s inner-melancholy just through the way he gets out of bed. This isn’t just the desired tone, it’s the truth; this is how people muddle through despair every day. And this is the movie Hedges should’ve made.
Waiting for Dan every morning is his advice column, "Dan in Real Life", which he writes for the local gazette. Ah, the piercing irony of a bereaved widower bringing hope to thousands of emotional cripples! And Dan’s so adept at it, he’s in the running for a lucrative, nationwide syndication deal! Oprah awaits!
Before long, Dan in Real Life nestles right into the increasingly mildewy nook last occupied by Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone. And the shopworn stench hits hard the minute Dan and his three daughters arrive at his parent’s vacation home in Rhode Island for a Thanksgiving reunion*. But unlike Bezucha’s film, Hedges doesn’t manage the personalities of his extended clan all that well. Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney are asked to do little more than stand around and look alternately loving or disappointed, Norbert Leo Burtz is forced to repress his natural comedic gifts (which he capably does, but… what’s the point?) as one of Dan’s brothers. It’s difficult to admit this given his obnoxious multimedia omnipresence at the moment, but the most tangibly realized character of the entire brood is Mitch, Dan’s innocuously superficial younger brother played by, yes, Dane Cook.
The main conflict of Dan in Real Life arrives with the ever luminous Juliette Binoche, who, as Mitch’s new girlfriend, Marie, lights a long extinguished flame within Dan. In Dan’s defense, he meets and bonds (at length) with her prior to realizing she’s his younger brother’s latest sweetheart. After a meet-twee in a local bookstore (where Dan, mistaken for an employee by Marie, rounds up an armful of books that might conform to her need for "something funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny"), Dan spends the better part of his first afternoon off by pouring out his heart to Marie. Right away, it’s clear that they’re kindred spirits, so, oh, the punch to the gut when Marie arrives at the (rather expansive) Burns estate (right after Dan’s let slip to everyone that he’s met a potentially special someone in town).
As an unconventional means of introducing the film’s central love triangle, this is fairly smart writing. But it also diminishes the conflict; when the rest of the family finally discover that Dan and Marie have been falling in love under their noses, the betrayal isn’t that unconscionable. At worst, Dan is guilty of bad judgment. But what can he do? Everyone’s fallen for Marie, including his kids (with whom he’s having difficulty connecting). After four years of moping around and mourning his deceased wife, there’s no way any reasonable person would begrudge him Marie – not on account of bad timing.
But this family is far from reasonable, and light years from bearable. When he isn’t tending to the burgeoning romance, Hedges is filling the genre’s quirk quotient with an endless array of group activities, like a gender-based crossword competition (okay), a group workout session (pushing it) and a fucking talent show (shattering it). Generally, when my extended family converges for Thanksgiving, they drink and watch football; charades has broken out on occasion, but that’s the extent of it. Maybe we’re too normal.
But that’s the danger courted by films like Dan in Real Life; they stray into the bizarre when "unique" would do just fine. Once you’ve sacrificed the quotidian, your only recourse is to play up the mawkishness and give the audience what they want: a good cry. And yet, by half-heartedly rearranging the tropes of the Brooks-ian dramedy in an attempt to feign emotional honesty, Hedges can’t connect on even a bullshit level. He’s stuck somewhere between real life and "real life". It’s James L. Brooks without the confidence and John Cheever without the cocktails. And while it may not plod (it clocks in at a merciful ninety-five minutes), it’s still a colossal waste of time and talent.
*I guess. I don’t remember the holiday ever getting referenced by name. Whatever the reason for the get-together, the kids are missing school because of it. Seems kinda strange.