Dan in Real Life

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Dan in Real Life." 

Peter Hedges has snuck up on us. He is no newcomer to film comedy. At age 45, he has written the novel and screenplay for the offbeat, felicitous "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," penned the screenplay for the sharply observed comic drama "About a Boy," wrote and directed the wonderfully dysfunctional Thanksgiving comedy "Pieces of April" and now has co-written and directed "Dan in Real Life."

This latter film, among many other fine things, provides Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche with comic roles that fit them like designer threads. While not a perfect comedy, "Dan" is certainly a crowd-pleasing, cleverly engineered and well-executed divertissement that should put grins on the faces of movie fans of many ages and execs at Disney and Focus Features.

Hedges' focus, at least up to this point, is the family. He also likes to deploy multiple stories that give you a big, chaotic mess within which smaller, intimate moments of tenderness or romance can exist. Here he brings together a large, boisterous family for an annual fall weekend in Rhode Island.

Dan (Carell) writes a family-advice column, Dan in Real Life. He is a widowed father of three girls, two of which are teens, meaning Dad is the last person you would go to for advice.

So he brings to this gathering mostly cranky daughters: Jane (Alison Pill), who wants to use her new driver's license and to be treated like an adult; Cara (Brittany Robertson), who believes she is the first person in the world to discover love; and 8-year-old Lilly (Marlene Lawston), who is smarter than Dan can possibly realize.

Longtime playboy brother Mitch (stand-up comic Dane Cook) means to introduce his family to his new squeeze, but before he can do so Dan unwittingly makes her acquaintance in a bookstore. He falls head over heels for Marie (Binoche) without realizing that she is his brother's new girlfriend. The sequence plays a little too meet cute but nonetheless features charming acting by Carell and Binoche. This predicament sets up any number of comically awkward situations in a huge, multibedroom seaside house belonging to Mom and Dad (veterans John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest, who cagily play things straight).

What Hedges does here so brilliantly is allow us to see two people fall madly in love in a situation where no one else can be aware of their passion. Eye contact and tugs at the mouth from Carell and Binoche do the trick very nicely, while the animated clan provides an engaging backdrop of familial love, thwarted though intense feelings -- that would be Cara -- longings for recognition -- that would be Jane -- and wounded behavior by the entire group once they realize Dan's deception. There also is a priceless drop-by appearance by beauteous Emily Blunt, who is becoming the queen of comic supporting roles.

The third act is a disappointment. It feels labored and unconvincing in its attempt to wrap up a convoluted situation that the Greeks would have handled with a god descending from the heavens to sort it all out.

No matter. Getting there was all the fun.

DAN IN REAL LIFE
Buena Vista Pictures
Touchstone Pictures/Focus Features
Credits:
Director: Peter Hedges
Screenwriters: Pierce Gardner, Peter Hedges
Producers: Jon Shestack, Brad Epstein
Executive producers: Noah Rosen, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Sarah Knowles
Music: Sondre Lerche
Co-producer: Dianne Dreyer
Costume designer: Alix Friedberg
Editor: Sarah Flack
Cast: Dan: Steve Carell
Marie: Juliette Binoche
Mitch: Dane Cook
Jane: Alison Pill
Cara: Brittany Robertson
Lily: Marlene Lawston
Nana: Dianne Wiest
Poppy: John Mahoney.
Running time -- 99 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13

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