My reaction to Dan in Real Life is a big fat "eh." I chuckled a few times, rolled my eyes a little bit, and questioned Dane Cook's sexuality. I also felt some sadness toward Juliette Binoche and Steve Carell, two actors who seem to have been charged with providing the charm for this movie entirely, and who both give up under the pressure. Because I like these actors very much, it depresses me to report that Dan in Real Life is forgettable.
Carell plays Dan, an advice columnist and widower with three daughters. He comes from one of those big, goofy, aw-shucks families you only see in movies. The stupidly flawless kind of family that has crossword competitions! And talent shows! And group aerobics on the front lawn! It's so saccharine my teeth started to ache. Apparently the "humor" of the film is supposed to come from the fact that Dan doles out flecks of wisdom on parenting and life, yet he's illogically overprotective with his own girls and he ends up falling in love with his brother's new girlfriend. Unfortunately, it's not humorous enough to be a comedic success, and not compelling enough to be heartwarming. To see more of what I mean,
Here's my main annoyance with the movie: it's supposed to be ironic because he's an advice columnist who can't seem to succeed as a father/brother/son/boyfriend/person? He's human and flawed? Who cares? For one thing, they don't do nearly a good enough job making us see what a "fantastic" advice columnist Dan is. So why should we care when he's attracted to his brother's girlfriend? For another thing, while I love Steve Carell, his attempts to be (I think) a struggling widower who's clumsily entering back into the dating world come off as distracted, slightly ashamed and a little sleepy. Nothing about this movie gets me to care about Dan, in his real life or otherwise.
The best things about the film are Juliette Binoche and the music, provided entirely by Sondre Lerch. Binoche is beautiful, self-assured, funny and warm as The Perfect Woman, Marie. The moments that have any real spark at all are when Binoche has reason to be passionate. When Marie is jealous of Dan's date with another woman, she burns Dan's pancakes the next morning and glares at him while he eats them in front of her, a moment that contains a surprising mix of comedy and sexual tension. These fiery moments are only that, however: momentary, and they are mostly dependent upon Binoche's irresistible charm. Lerche's music adds a relaxing ease to the movie, making otherwise lame scenes tolerable.
The narrative, such as it is, doesn't just trudge along dopily, it meanders and veers woozily from side to side. At no point did I have confidence that this was all leading someplace satisfying. The artful, truthful beauty that director Peter Hedges achieved in Pieces of April is utterly missing. It's like his creativity plodded around in a circle for a while before curling up and going to sleep. I had a kind of naive optimism about this movie but found that real life really is pretty disappointing — even in the movies.