Dan in Real Life

Starring Steve Carell,

Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook

Written and directed by Peter Hedges

Rated PG-13

You know what would be fascinating? A movie in which a character who dispenses advice for a living — like a therapist, a member of the clergy, or, in the case of Dan in Real Life, an advice columnist — isn’t a complete basket case.

Hollywood has generated a cornucopia of clichés. But is there anyone who finds it blisteringly ironic that flawed humans might be able to provide comfort to other flawed humans without it being some grand hypocrisy?

The problem with these lazy movies is that the cliché is usually expected to do a lot of the thematic heavy lifting. But despite the fact that Dan in Real Life‘s titular Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is, indeed, a newspaper advice columnist whose own personal life is kind of a mess, that’s not really the story here.

At its core, this is a story about family — and it’s about family in a more genuine and affectionate way than most movies manage.

It shouldn’t be surprising that writer/director Peter Hedges is interested in family dynamics that move beyond the easy descriptor “dysfunctional.” Like Hedges’ 2003 drama Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life revolves around a family gathering, this one at the Rhode Island beach house of Dan’s parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest).

A widowed father of three girls, Dan is still struggling to raise them on his own four years after his wife’s death. His parents and siblings express concern in that wonderfully, horribly typical way: an expression of pure love and pure annoyance.

This is the sensibility that Hedges — who also nailed the attraction/repulsion dichotomy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? — seems to understand well. He nails the casual needling and ongoing rivalry that can characterize interactions between adult siblings, as well as the simmering disgust of teenagers toward their oblivious parents.

The punch lines generally don’t really feel like punch lines. Instead, they emerge organically from the way the characters interact. Nearly every detail feels right, including the matter-of-fact authority of Wiest’s character, who assigns dish-washing duty as punishment for bad table manners.

Hedges makes this pulsing, living organism of a family so vital that it’s hard to believe he pins his plot on yet another wacky irony: While on a trip into town for newspapers, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), a lovely woman with whom he shares the morning and feels his first real connection in four years. Unfortunately — get this! — Marie is actually in town because she’s the new girlfriend of Dan’s bad-boy brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Binoche effortlessly embodies Marie’s energy, and Cook submerges his ego nicely, but the romantic angle can’t help feeling synthetic — especially when you’ve got forced situations like Dan sharing an impromptu shower with Marie, or Dan blind-dating a childhood loser who has morphed into hottie Emily Blunt.

Dan in Real Life keeps walking that tightrope between contrivance and authenticity, with Hedges managing to keep the balance slightly in his favor. Nowhere is this trick more evident than in a late scene involving a family talent contest, as Dan and Mitch perform a duet of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” — with only Dan and Marie aware that both men are singing to the same woman.

Sitcom awkwardness gives way to real awkwardness, a truly poignant moment of a guy trying to deal with love again. Hedges may resort to the obvious, even in his resolutions, but he knows how to wrap it in the stuff of real life. And ultimately, that’s so much more compelling than the clichés of movie life.

Film Trailer