Much like Hedges’ previous film ‘Pieces of April’ which looked at the careful juxtaposition of family relationships and the crises that can arise out of everyday situation, here he takes a lead character places him in his family surroundings and how the hierarchy can alter your behaviour just because.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a widower and local newspaper columnist struggling to balance life, work and single parenthood with three girls - the loyal Jane, the passionate Cara and the idyllic Lilly. They leave for a weekend with Dan’s parents, Poppy (John Mahoney) and Nana (Dianne Weist) where Dan having to get the papers meets a woman he falls for the first time in four years, Marie (Juliette Binoche), unknowing that he is seeing Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook).
Carell’s job is to balance being funny, insightful and romantic while also being downhearted for two-thirds of the film, but he does it well making us sympathetic for Dan while also not falling totally in love with him. He can mix up his fast talking, physical comedy and sentiment all in one role without having to gurn or corpse.
The cast is a great ensemble together and the performances raise a so-so script with moments of genuine emotion and realism, (Dane Cook’s improvised piano ballad turns from a cruel joke into a family sing-song enhancing the unity and full of looks and things not said). There are great set-pieces like the samba dance in the garden, the shower scene full of simplicity, slightness and is perfection.
While another great film to add to the pantheon of the young angry man growing up towards middle age - Sideways remains the best example - it has the typical problem of American indie cinema where it endulges in the requirement of a happy ending and making everyone get on with everyone at the end; once Dan and Marie stamp their love, everyone simultaneously must know about it (a fault of the family in one house film) and the ability to forgive and forget is always at the forefront.
But that is a small flaw that luckily only comes near the end and does not allow you to forget all that is before - the acting, the observations of universal family life and a nifty score written by Sondre Lereche, that is light but not overbearing on the film. Dan in Real Life, is the real thing, the sort of thing that America should do more of.