I saw Dan in Real Life last week, and by last night I’d put the review to bed and scheduled it for publication — as Dane Cook appears in the film, it was a fortiori a reasonably scathing review focused on the cockposeur that is Mr. “Actober,” despite the fact that he isn’t even a central character in Dan. The problem, however, was the review and the attendant scathe was only half-assed; I couldn’t really put my heart into it.
Cut to last night, when I sat down to watch the season premiere of “Scrubs,” a show that’s fallen on mediocre times, but a show that I’ve always really liked anyway. However, when Zach Braff appeared onscreen, my inexplicable hatred for him reared up and in a split second, for all intents and purposes, I was done with “Scrubs.” Sure, I’ll likely continue watching it through the remainder of the season, but at no point will my disdain for Mr. Braff allow me to enjoy it. But why? Where does the white-hot detestation come from?
And then it struck me: It’s you people. Pajiba Nation. You’ve poisoned the well. Sure, The Last Kiss is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and The Ex wasn’t particularly good, either. But that’s not it. It’s the backlash. The cumulative effect of all the comments you good folks have left over the years have taken their toll, sunk deep into my mind and rotted and festered and oozed revulsion for this man whose biggest offense, really, was writing and directing a pretty decent film, Garden State, that’s merely soured over time like Miracle Whip left under a heat lamp.
But now I’m terrified that Steve Carell is next in line. That a backlash of epic proportions is bubbling up somewhere just waiting for a misguided critic here or a blogger there to say, “Carell is an overrated douchebag,” and then the floodgates will open and the insults will pour forth, and in six months’ time, the cool kids will no longer like him — he’ll be tossed to the masses and forced into making a living off of bad family Christmas movies for the rest of his career.
I don’t want this to happen. But given the inevitable decline of “The Office” and the slate of films he’s got on tap — Get Smart, Horton Hears a Who and High T (about a man who’s wildly affected by shots of testosterone) — it seems all but inevitable. By this time next year, Carell will be another casualty of his own career choices combined with the pop-culture machinations that are designed to bring men like Carell down. And so, Dan in Real Life may represent the beginning — Carell’s cinematic precipice, the point in his career right before he drops into the vat of mainstream putridity. And it’s not even a good film, damnit.
Lookit: As a comedian, you’d have to be a little soft-brained to actively loathe Steve Carell — he’s self-effacing, modest, and funny as hell, and few in Hollywood have the same ability to extract poignant gold from uncomfortable awkwardness. But what sets Carell apart from Will Ferrell, for instance, is that there’s a wellspring of emotion deep within those sullen eyes; the Carellian sad clown is a fine dramatic actor, one that I fear will be wasted for years to come. Those sunken eyes, when turned upwards and appropriately puppy-dogged, can extract a mountain of sympathy, and in Dan in Real Life, he finally gets to unleash his inner tumult — the wounded adult with a Patty Griffin song stuck in his soul — and the result is an amazingly endearing leading man.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t live up to his talents. Writer/director Peter Hedges, who brought us the decent and warm-hearted Pieces of April, and who also wrote About a Boy and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) (for which he has my eternal thanks), craps out here. Dan in Real Life has a decidedly indie aesthetic, a rock-solid cast (Dane Cook notwithstanding, though even he manages not to spray his douchewater all over the proceedings) and a terribly likable character in Dan. Unfortunately, the premise is faulty, the stabs at humor are obvious, and despite the talent the ensemble brings to the film, it’s ultimately just another flat, mediocre romantic comedy, the sort of movie that will disappoint indie and mainstream audiences alike.
The film’s largest weakness stems from the initial premise: Dan, a single, widowed father of three who writes an advice column on parenting, takes his daughters for a long weekend’s stay at a cabin in Rhode Island with his entire, extended family. He hasn’t dated anyone since his wife died four years ago. On his first morning in Rhode Island, while perusing a bookshop, he meets Marie (Juliet Binoche, radiant as always). One thing leads to another, and they wind up at a diner for coffee. There, through a quick montage of meaningless banter, we’re supposed to believe that the two have formed an undeniable, insatiable attraction because, well, the script says they did.
No surprise, it turns out she’s in a relationship with Dan’s brother, Mitch (Cook), which Dan discovers during the meet-cute that’s about as cute as a Dane-Cook taint boil. From there, everything unfolds just as you’d expect: Footballs are tossed, family squabbles are had, and Dan’s obsessions with Marie continue unabated, and she eventually reciprocates that affection. Of course, Dan and Marie can’t act on their feelings because she’s dating his brother, and Dan — more than anything — is a decent guy who wouldn’t do that to a sibling. It’s nothing we haven’t seen in dozens of romantic comedies, and there is absolutely no surprise in the labored, contrived outcome except that — because of Carell’s presence — you don’t detest it nearly as much as you should.
There are a few honest moments between the family members, and the relationship between Dan and his daughters is the film’s strongest element, even if the difficulties he faces are dumb and pat and the big turning point in the movie revolves around a goddamn scrapbook that his youngest daughter makes for him. But nonetheless, Carell’s performance lingers like a fatherly hug, a performance so quiet and warm and sweet that I couldn’t even bring myself to muster up the requisite hatred for Mr. Cook. And anyone that can neutralize Dane Cook ought to be skipped over for Oscar consideration and put straight into the queue for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is too big and deep a bruise for Carell to heal all on his own because, at least on the big screen, this may be the last time in a while that we see Carell before the tide turns. But the good news is this: After he amasses a fortune, after he wears out his welcome on blockbuster family films, and after his career stalls for a couple of years, some enterprising young filmmaker — the next Wes Anderson, perhaps — will see in Carell what Anderson saw in Bill Murray: The perfect balance of funny and forlorn, and those sad, mournful eyes that may, one day, make him popular with the cool kids again.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Dan in Real Life / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 28, 2007 | Comments ()