It seems actor Steve Carell is sitting on top of the world these days. He’s proven himself formidable in a variety of roles, from leading man (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Evan Almighty”) to solid supporter (“Anchorman,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) to TV star (“The Office”). “Dan In Real Life” — his second movie this year — finds the former “Daily Show” correspondent bringing his trademark brand of humor to the romantic comedy genre.
In the film Carell plays Dan Burns, a widowed father who works as a newspaper columnist dispensing relationship advice. On the way to attend a family get-together, he hits it off with a charming stranger named Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a local bookstore. As it so happens, she is already dating his brother (Dane Cook) and has been asked to join the family for the gathering. The two try to play everything off as normal by keeping their encounter a secret, which results in a wild week for the entire family.
Carell has been embraced by audiences as Hollywood’s latest everyman, and he furthers that designation here. Not only is he juggling the difficulty of raising three daughters, coping with the death of his wife, and worrying about a possible job promotion, he is simultaneously trying to win the affections of Marie. This provides him the opportunity to show off a portion of his dramatic side, allowing the assortment of embarrassing proceedings to naturally evolve. Through it all, Carell’s patented penchant for awkwardness and deadpan wit remain on display, which is sure to please his expanding fan base.
The rest of the cast spend their time supporting and playing off of Carell’s talents. Oscar winner Binoche (“The English Patient,” “Chocolat”) develops a good chemistry with Carell, making the premise at least somewhat plausible. Displaying a diluted amount of the free-spiritedness of the latter film, she makes for a nice contrast with the more down-to-reality Burns family. Even though I’ve never been a huge fan of her work, her character is easy to like and a distinctive part of the cast.
Cook, who has experienced a rough transition from stand-up comic to leading man, demonstrates he can actually act when given the chance. His role is one of the more serious ones he’s tackled and, by leaving most of the comedy to Carell and the others, frees him up to focus on the character. While it’s far from an Oscar worthy performance, it indicates he may have a career in acting after all.
While the film incorporates a higher dose of realistic drama than your average romantic comedy, it still exhibits many of its familiar traits. From the opening outset, it’s easy to predict how things will play out, and it never deviates from this expected outcome.
However, director Peter Hedges (“Pieces Of April”) has injected the right combination of heart and warmth so that we don’t mind retracing this familiar territory. His depiction of family and characters is easy to relate to and care for, despite whatever disagreements or peculiarities they might possess. In a time when America is being torn apart by dysfunctional households, it’s refreshing to see one portrayed that supports and looks out for one another.
In the midst of the family dynamics, the film is not without its fair share of laughs. While it is never overtly over-the-top like many recent comedies, Carell remains in his element the entire time, and the part proves to be another step in the right direction for creating an enduring career. Count this as another fine feather in Carell’s rapidly filling hat.