Click above to visit the entire site
Dan Burns (Steve Carrell), the widower who writes the eponymous advice column in Peter Hedges's Dan in Real Life, lives in a cramped Dutch colonial in a modest New Jersey suburb with his three daughters, one bathroom and no housekeeper. Dan's day job leaves him plenty of time to do the laundry and the cooking. He is in denial about how lonely he is, but as he has no reason to leave his house, except, presumably, to go shopping, he is unlikely to meet anybody, so the denial doesn't come up until it's too late, and he's ready to be done with it. This happens in a picturesque Rhode Island town on the water where his extended family keeps a summer house for family reunions. Ordered out of the house by his mother (Dianne Wiest) - he's so disconsolate; he needs a break; yada yada - Dan heads for the local used bookstore, where he runs into (read: "meets cute") a charming woman (Juliette Binoche) who is in search of the right book for an "awkward" situation. The filmmaker's way of handling this book search is the first sign of the movie's determination to avoid offending anyone by being too specific about anything. Ms Binoche tosses off a cascade of contradictory adjectives to describe what she's looking for - funny but not laughing-out-loud funny and certainly not making-fun-of-anybody funny. That, unfortunately, could be the motto, or even the epitaph, of this strangely neutered production. Despite the able and undeservedly committed performances of its really rather formidable cast, Dan in Real Life is so deprived of personal detail that, while its charm would be reduced to nothing, its dramatic heft would not be much diminished if it were enacted by a troupe of Smiley Faces.
This is not to say that I expect Dan in Real Life to fare poorly at the box office. It might have fared better, but it could easily have fared worse, and the producers seem to have hedged their bets more or less successfully. Steve Carrell is his lovable genial self, carrying on the great American tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Jack Lemmon, playing ordinary, put-upon guys who finally get a break. Mr Carrell's range within this genre is extraordinary, stretching from the decent but dim doofus in 40 Year Old Virgin to the agonized Proust scholar and would-be suicide in Little Miss Sunshine. On the brainy-to-brickhead scale, Dan Burns falls much closer to the Proust scholar than to the doofus, but all the tics that made Frank Hoover so endearing have been filed off. Dan Burns is Endearing because it's stamped on his face, in the remorse of Mr Carrell's clear but canine eyes.
At least we know something about Dan (ie, that he writes a popular advice column). The refusal to commit - by the filmmakers, not the characters - is only intensified when Dan and his girls arrive at the family reunion. Is it a country house? Or do Nana (Ms Wiest) and Poppy (John Mahoney) live there all the time? In either case, what do, or did, they do, for a living? Has Poppy retired from a successful career, or did he and Nana tap into trust funds that enabled them to afford their pricey but understated house on the water? And, oh, is it understated! A shingle house with cozy gambrel eaves, it is the luxury version of Dan's improbably little house. On the inside, its walls are covered with highly polished lath - it looks like an old yacht. But a simple yacht! There are no memorable details, no telling knick-knacks. If IKEA produced a line of Mission furniture, it would fit right in. The Burns live simply, too. Their meals are almost rudimentary - pancakes, pie, and sandwiches. I don't recall seeing a single wine glass at the grownups' table. (The children eat separately, in the kitchen, betraying one of many subtle markers of professional affluence that have somehow survived from an earlier, more interesting screenplay.) When Dan's wild younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook) runs to the fridge for a drink to restore his suddenly wilted ego, he grabs a bottle of water, nothing stronger. And, by the way, what does Mitch do? Besides falling in love with Marie (Ms Binoche), that is. What does Clay Burns (Norman Leo Butz), the middle brother, do? What does the brother-in-law, Howard (Frank Wood), do? How about the women (Amy Ryan, Jessica Hecht)? Does anybody besides Dan have a job?
Who cares, you say, what these supporting characters do for a living. We just want to enjoy the show. You're right: it's a minor detail. But it's one of countless minor details that are missing from this movie about obviously complicated people. Although the actors ably embody the little things that differentiate each character from the others - Amy Ryan, if you can find her in the background, is particularly good at establishing the inner peace that sister-in-law Eileen has made upon joining the Burns tribe - they do so without any help from the script. Their conversation, while lively, is utterly generic, lifted from the relicts of failed TV pilots. It's not bad, it's just nothing.
Once upon a time, Hollywood made a staple of families like the Burnses. In that bygone America, there were a few poor people, even fewer rich people, and then everybody else. The operative conceit was that the audience and the stars alike belonged to the "everybody else" class. Jobs were notional, mere plot devices to keep fictional families solvent. Everybody who didn't live in a shanty or a mansion lived in a "nice" house and drove a "nice" car, even if the house and the car were in fact far beyond the reach of most American families. That was part of the point: the movie rolled out room in which to dream. Someday, you, sitting in the audience, might live just as well as these nice people who, after all, were just like you.
Of all the studios turning out movies today, Disney is the one that you might expect to try to resurrect this vanished American dream. We will ask why in a moment; for now, it's important to note that, in the old days, stories like the one that Dan in Real Life has to tell couldn't end happily. If a man fell in love with his brother's sweetheart, the only choices for resolution were death or renunciation. This was partly because a man could not insult his brother by stealing his girl, but a stronger factor was the persistent idea that a woman falls in love just once, and that if she chooses unwisely the first time, she doesn't get any second chances: she's used goods. Needless to say, there is no room for such weepy outcomes in a Steve Carrell comedy. Everybody in the movie accepts the fact that Marie and Mitch have made a no-fault mistake (to no one's surprise, Mitch adapts almost as quickly as Marie), and everyone gets dressed up proper for the wedding of Marie and Dan. And that's what's wrong with Dan in Real Life. Its attempt to revive the simplicity of an earlier time smothers the intelligence, if not the life, of its very modern characters.
How humanly probable is it, do you think, that not one of the Burnses - and a nicer bunch you'll never meet - has a thing to say about Dan's column? One suspects that, in the "real" version of this movie, Dan's parents might be slightly dismissive about it, as if they'd hoped for something "better" for their bright and loving son. Or they might be defiantly enthusiastic about the sheer unlikelihood of Dan's making a good living writing for a newspaper. But in this fake version, they say nothing. Nobody else says anything, either. The closest we get is Mitch's condescending compliment: "You were always the one with the words." Gee, bro, thanks.
The reason behind the appeal of a simpler America for Disney and its fans is a discomfort with all unusual (that is, personalized) intelligence. The studio has its corporate reasons for discouraging critical responses; its audience tends to resent those who are capable of them. Thanks to its cast, the characters in Dan and Real Life sizzle with verve. But they are no more capable of saying anything actually interesting than they are of submitting to explicit sex, and for the same reason. Just as onscreen sex would make most of the audience uncomfortable, the same is understood to be true of anything that might smack of erudition. (We might have asked what exactly qualifies Dan Burns to write his column.) I wonder, though. Why can't Disney believe that there might be something aspirational about using your head? (November 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press