The recent dearth of quality romantic comedy/drama is at least partly ameliorated with the release of Dan in Real Life the same day (in Australia) as Definitely, Maybe, a film which shares not only its genre and a degree of substance lacking from other recent similarly pitched efforts, but also a surprisingly adept performance by a hitherto disappointing leading man.
Steve Carell is Dan, an advice columnist for a local newspaper and single father of three young women who generally ignore that he is a successful and highly regarded lifecoach and do their own things irrespective. The loss of their mother and their increasing ages (and desires) have left all three in conflict with Dan, but the traditional extended family holiday will allow the girls time out while giving Dan a chance at his own happiness.
Audience favourite Carell, whose previous work has consisted universally of over-the-top portrayals of supposedly ‘funny characters’, finally gives a performance of substance as Dan, and it is perhaps one of the more startling reversals since Jim Carrey astonished the world with his role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carell flirts with his usual excessive mannerisms and delivery, but for the most part shows admirable restraint and unforeseen warmth.
Carell is assisted by direction from Peter Hedges that allows his performers to work without undue interference, but also fortifies their characters with deft timing and subtle set-ups. This effect is most notable for Dan, who is often isolated from his abundant family through either dialogue or plot, such that this compounds the audience’s sense of Dan’s loneliness and detachment. Hedges moves the story at a gentle pace, lingering on moments of importance and allowing mirth to break up the more serious sequences; the end result is a finely tuned film that hums along exactly as it should.
The focus on Dan does mean, however, that several of the other cast members are afforded less time to develop their characters, and this is particularly the case with Juliette Binoche who seems to have been required simply to be adorable and endearing. Her backstory is touched upon only briefly, and her current relationship never meaningfully explained. Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney, on the other hand, seem to revel in their minor supporting roles.
That there are minor problems with Dan in Real Life should be of no real concern to those filmlovers who have been waiting for a better than average dramedy for some time. Carell, Binoche and the rest deliver a charming and moderately moving film about loss and growth that should be enjoyed by most.Rating: