DIRECTED BY PETER HEDGES
STARRING: STEVE CARELL, ALISON PILL, JULIETTE BINOCHE, DANE COOK, MARLENE LOWSTON, BRITTANY ROBERTSON, NORBERT LEO BUTZ, AMY RYAN, JESSICA HECHT, FRANK WOOD, HENRY MILLER, ELLA MILLER with EMILY BLUNT, JOHN MAHONEY and DIANNE WIEST
The thing about Peter Hedges is how less he tries to stop you from classifying him. And how, as a result of that, you don’t want to. He’s a writer-director of independent films who doesn’t stick to routine and thus produces a stronger outcome. ‘Pieces of April’ was reflective of that. ‘About a Boy’ probably lesser so. You could credit him for inventing a unique blend of feel-good fiction with a relatable storyline that’s simple and straight as people can be. There’s something very wholesome about the experience, a strong sense of empathy that he inspires. With Hedges, it’s not your life on screen. It’s a life you like, idealized, where everything is in the perfect amount, neither amplified, nor diminished. The ups and downs. The contradictions. The resolutions. And best of all, Hedges doesn’t push his luck – he tweaks it.
‘Dan in Real Life’ is no different. It’s a Hedges film. It’s about Dan Burns (Steve Carell), a columnist who gives parenting advice and who, appropriately, is a widower raising three girls on his own. Is he doing a good job? Who knows? Parenting as such is a paradox of free will and enslavement as well as everything in between. Who knows what a good parent is? Lilly Burns (Dan’s youngest daughter, a proud fourth-grader) could probably have the best answer when she calls Dan ‘a good father but a bad dad.’ Dan’s skeptical about the fact that she coined it; he thinks it came from his oldest daughter Jane (Alison Pill) or the lovestruck and angsty Cara (Brittany Robertson) and is probably right about it. But then they have a point. He’s the strict father of great kids who don’t look at themselves and admire his work. They’re defiant, and at their ages, they’re justified. We know for sure that they’re bound to grow up and feel more affectionate. For Dan’s the kind of Dad who’s better looked-back upon than lived through.
The four of them head down to the Burns’ family home, a seaside bungalow that always has someone running around, kid or adult. It’s Thanksgiving and they can afford to miss school for that. I’m unclear about the number of siblings, but there are four couples in the house including Dan’s parents Poppy (John Mahoney) and Nana (the ever-delightful Dianne Wiest) Burns. It starts with three, initially, with Marie (Juliette Binoche, who is as Americanized a Frenchwoman as Julie Delpy in ‘Before Sunset’) being the last one in. She is the newly-found girlfriend of Dan’s younger brother named Mitch (Dane Cook) like all younger brothers are. Marie calls him ‘fun to be with’ in a gym-instructor sort of way. We understand. He’s the real-life rebound guy that’s great at his aerobics. You know at once that he isn’t going to come good on the longer run. Literally.
A darker drama might feature intrigue, but here Dan and Marie find each other by accident and in ignorance. He plays librarian to her book requests. She gets his jokes and commands his actions. They’re like the movie-definition of soul mates. She then excuses herself and leaves early saying she has a new boyfriend whom she has come to visit. She gives him her number though and asks him not to call. He is hesitant, but his brothers disagree. They deem it not unethical as long as she’s not engaged. Dan, on the other hand, knows that for family, those rules don’t apply.
Steve Carell is the perfect Dan Burns. Not just him, but everyone is at home with their characters. Alison Pill is convincing as a seventeen-year-old. Dianne Wiest hits an uncanny high as a romantic-comedy-Mom with her portrayal of Nana Burns. Juliette Binoche, John Mahoney; even Dane Cook is well-cast. Every side character has been written, not just filled. They’re all well-defined, the mark of a novelist. The household is integral, Dan sticks out. It’s a love-hate thing. He’s the columnist who speaks too soon, only to find that life’s problems aren’t solved by printing retractions. “Someone hasn’t been reading his own column”, he says. Haven’t you felt that? It’s not a moral dilemma as such. It’s the bane of nature. Like finding yourself driving on the wrong side of the road in Rhode Island – you can’t even have a police officer set you right. For Dan, however, there’s hope. There’s Marie.
Roger Ebert derided the film’s soundtrack (by Sondre Lerche) as it its only flaw. He says it gives too much away. I was surprised to find I felt that too. It rang a bell. Aren’t all indie scores like that? ‘There’s Something about Mary’ spoke too right too soon – we need a new reminder. But then, ‘Dan in Real Life’ is beyond such letdowns. It’s organic and concise at that. And I found that to be a deadly combination.