Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Continuing our Shine A Light series, in which the goal is to call attention to films that deserve a second look or just haven’t been seen by enough folks.
“I’m looking for a book… something that can help me deal with what might be an awkward situation. Something funny might be nice, but not necessarily big, ‘ha, ha, ha,’ laugh-out-loud funny, and certainly not make-fun-of-other-people funny but rather something human-funny. And, uh, if it could uh, sneak up on you, surprise you, and at the same time make you think that what you thought wasn’t only right, in a wrong kind of way, but when you’re wrong, there’s a certain rightness to your wrongness… Well, maybe what I mean is, um, more importantly, I’m looking to be swept up! And at the same time, not. Meaning I want to feel a deep connection to, uh, something. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
As the new year rolls forward into its second week many of us find ourselves returning anew to work or school having just spent quite some time interacting with friends and family, some of whom we will not see again for another year. Decades of telecommunications technology have not dulled the edge of what “dealing with your family” can sometimes mean, nor has it freed us from our personal sense of isolation. Most importantly, this is the season, unlike any other, for personal reflection. Dan in Real Life (2007) treats with all these issues and is one of the first films that opened me up to this world of complicated feelings.
Like many audience members, Steve Carell’s career explosion is what got me into this theater seat in the fall of 2007. Fresh off his breakout roles in the Judd Apatow world (Anchorman , The 40-Year-Old Virgin ), and the much-applauded Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Carell had become a sure bet in American comedy. Supporting roles by Dane Cook riding a career high and the always bankable French-actress Juliette Binoche sweetened the pot and made this film unmissable for yours truly.
Dan came and went in the theaters, making little splash at the box office or among critics. Yet this little not-holiday, not-romcom film has caused me endless moments of reflection in the 12 years since its release. It has not, however, resulted in repeated viewings. So, dear reader, I have gotten up early one morning due to lack of sleepiness whilst lost in thought, just like our widower hero Dan Burns, and I am going to watch this film and mine it for something worth thinking about.
Part 1: “If you don’t let me I’ll never learn.”
“But if I let you, you may not live”
Dan writes the advice-column “Dan in Real Life” aimed at the parents of teenagers from the New Jersey home he shares with his three daughters. Jane (Alison Pill), the eldest, is beginning to chafe under her father’s protective refusal to allow her to practice her driving on their yearly family trip to his parents’ coastal cabin. For Dan this issue is one of caution but for Jane it has become one of disrespect. Cara (Britt Robertson) is rapidly and passionately discovering boys and her own sexuality much to Dan’s chagrin and consternation. His youngest, Lilly (Marlene Lawston) seems the least eager to challenge her father but is also subtly beginning to assert herself by, for example, packing her own suitcase much to Dan’s surprise and mild bemusement. Dan, however, navigates through these choppy waters with the aplomb of a well-respected advice columnist. He clearly communicates his feelings to his daughters, jokes with them, and treats them like human beings. Revisiting this film a decade later, I am shocked at how well-developed and performed the roles of these little girls are. As they pack themselves up into the car (no one sitting in the passenger seat, its empty presence a reminder of their lost matriarch) this family feels surprisingly genuine as it bickers its way up the Jersey turnpike.
Part 2: “Get lost, Dan. That’s not a request.
When Dan and his gaggle of daughters arrive that night at their Rhode Island destination the camera whips around, centered on Dan, through a flurry of hugs and handshakes as he shares pleasantries with his entire family before being shunted into his makeshift bedroom beside the washing machine. Dan’s loneliness is palpable as he interacts, yet fails to connect with, the majority of his family. This is a deeply relatable moment for all of us cresting over the recent wave of holidays and is maybe the central theme of the film. In the morning, Dan is instructed to give his daughters space by his mother who offers him the job of fetching the newspaper by going into town and having a little alone time. Once in the bookstore Dan pretends to work there in order to attract the attention of a mysterious and beautiful customer. Dan’s connection to Marie (Juliette Binoche) is immediate and effortless. After wooing her with his book clerk act he takes her out for breakfast where he spends what, in movie language, seems like hours spilling his soul to her. He shares childhood stories, deep secrets, and even gets into the death of his wife. Marie’s line “you don’t have to smile” as Dan protests that his family is okay now, is quiet and touching and his reply “better than the alternative” is as accurate as it is heartbreaking. Of course, this is a movie, and where there are meet cutes there must also be conflict. Dan’s date with Marie is interrupted by a phone call from her new boyfriend. As she rushes off to meet him Dan successfully negotiates a copy of her phone number to “finish a conversation”
Part 3: “What’s wrong?”
“Nobody! I mean, nothing.”
Like all great leading men, Dan summarily beats himself up for a stupid line: “I’d even call to say I’m not calling?!”, fails to pay attention to the road ahead, and acquires a deliciously hypocritical speeding ticket after nearly getting into a traffic accident. Dan gets home, his head still swimming, and is immediately accosted with questions by his father and brothers who can all sense what has happened. They share the news with the whole house that “Dan met someone” and eagerly prod him with advice and questions. Surprisingly, (but also not) Marie is Mitch’s (Dan’s younger brother) new paramour. Dan’s brother urging him to chase after his own girlfriend is the irony that powers much of the rest of film as Dan is forced to retreat into himself after very nearly crawling out of his shell in order to spend an awkward and unfulfilled weekend beside Marie.
After crossword battles to decide who has to do the dishes, long walks on the beach as a family, and hours of his entire family pumping Marie with questions (and falling in love with her) Dan struggles to keep it together. He becomes increasingly disruptive as he watches what is essentially the second-half of his date with Marie (him getting to know her) unfold before his impotent eyes. Dan rejects Marie’s suggestion to simply tell everyone what happened and laugh it off for reasons unclear and although much of the film is focused on Dan’s feelings, we do occasionally watch Marie shoot Dan a few glances from across the way perhaps searching for a little more than Mitch who, Dan assures her, is ”a great guy”. But as the night wears on, Dan’s contempt for his younger brother grows.
Part 4: “I’m going to stop thinking about you.”
Eventually, Dan explodes in the middle of a family dinner and childishly compares Marie to Mitch’s less promising dates (a nameless selection of stewardesses, dancers, and masseuses). Later a recalcitrant and chastened Dan tries to spill the beans to Mitch and extricate himself from these hi-jinks. Yet it’s that moment that Mitch also first displays any kind of maturity and growth, expressing genuine and special feelings for Marie. Dan becomes once again reluctant to interfere with his family and continues to painfully admire Marie from afar
Dan does his best to separate himself from and ignore Marie but situations contrive to force him to take notice of her. An attempt at a day trip with his children lays bare the futility of his actions. Dan is sinking and making mistakes. He seemingly vows to do better and finally confronts Marie and attempts to set boundaries. This, of course, leads to him being trapped in the shower with a nude Marie while one of his daughters peppers Marie with questions about life and finding oneself.
Part 5: “We are officially worried.”
Dan’s parents confront him in his room. This is, in spectacular fashion, interrupted by Dan’s sister and her husband doing laundry, Dan’s brother Clay (Norbert Leo Butz), and his wife and daughter, and eventually even Mitch and Marie all of whom Dan welcomes into his room in an attempt to ward off this awkward conversation with his parents. It is ultimately revealed that they have set up a date for him with a local girl Ruthie (Emily Blunt) who he will be taking out on a double-date tonight with Marie and Mitch. Dan’s brothers tease him mercilessly about his date with Ruthie “pig-face” Draper but much to their surprise Ruthie has grown up into a slightly slutty Emily Blunt which appears to be exactly Mitch’s type. And much to Dan’s delight, it is finally Marie’s turn to appear a little bit jealous.
When the film falls into its sitcom hi-jinks it loses itself a little in the farce but it also has a way of drawing out the best and harshest truths from beleaguered Dan. Here is a man barely holding it together for the sake of his children who is unraveling years after his loss in a fit of sibling rivalry. But this movie is brimming with monologues that as simple and obvious and trite and cliche as they may be tap into real human emotions that make it all feel true. Sometimes you can abandon the metaphors and just communicate with people. That’s where Dan in Real Life excels.
The morning after his date Dan enjoys Marie’s resentment as she purposefully serves him burnt pancakes and herself struggles to hold it together. Now on a more even playing field with his family and his love interest, Dan begins to recover and is able to connect with his family again in a way that isn’t merely for show. Of course it doesn’t last long. He suffers a football to the face, has to carry all the life-vests and drag the kayaks by himself, and catches his teen daughter making out with her boyfriend who took up a bus up to Rhode Island. His confrontation with his daughter leads to one of the best speeches of the movie.
“What don’t I understand, Cara? Please, help me out. What is it? It’s frustrating that you can’t be with this person? That there’s something keeping you apart? That there’s something about this person that you really connect with? And whenever you’re near this person, you don’t know what to say, and you say everything that’s in your mind and in your heart, and you know that if you could just be together, that this person would help you become the best possible version of yourself?”
Part 6: “I can’t keep pretending.”
What’s refreshing about Dan in Real Life is that on the surface, it’s the cheapest most saccharine nonsense about Boy Meets Girl and a misguided man learning a lesson that adds meaning and fulfillment to his life. But Dan, within the trappings of a RomCom is actually a dramedy and delivers genuine heartache. Steve Carell’s rendition of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” is heartbreaking and this film’s best scene. Afterwards, Marie confronts Dan with her feelings. It seems that upon reading Dan’s novel, at his brother’s behest, she discovered that Mitch’s best lines were taken from the book. Now also trapped in living a lie Marie does what Dan cannot and storms out. Dan awakens the next day to Marie breaking up with Mitch. Dan, reeling with a strange sense of joy, floats through the next few hours while Mitch simply reels with heartbreak and confusion. He blows off his daughter Lilly twice when she tries to show him a surprise she’s created for him and rushes off to meet Marie (acquiring a second speeding ticket) at a nearby bowling alley. The two once again share an effortless romance.
Sitcom hi-jinks resume when their tryst in the bowling alley is interrupted by Dan’s entire family arriving to bowl. With their secret finally revealed Mitch punches Dan and Marie runs off. Dan crashes into a police vehicle attempting to chase after her. With a black eye and a busted lip Dan sits down in his family’s cabin with representatives from a newspaper publishing company who are vetting Dan for syndication. But the film actually doesn’t care about that at all. It’s one or two lines of dialogue. What the movie cares about is Dan and his daughters and it thankfully focuses on that for the home stretch
Part 7: “I know I messed up. Big time.”
Dan in Real Life is one of those movies that subtly teaches the lesson “adults don’t have it all figured out either”. Dan opens up to and learns to rely on his daughters. He even steals a line from his daughter’s boyfriend (“Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability”). Having lost his license it is Jane who has to drive Dan to New York so he can find Marie again. Dan’s youngest daughter, Lilly, who has created a collage out of photos of her mother for Dan is assuaged that Dan’s relationship with Marie does not mean he has forgotten them. Dan’s middle-child, Cara, is happy to tag along and watch her father make a reckless romantic gesture, and Dan’s eldest daughter, Jane, finally gets to take the car out on the highway. The family arrives at Marie’s gym in New York City and she displays all the happiness and confusion in the world at seeing them again. Dan and Marie celebrate their wedding at sunset during the film’s end credits.
Dan in Real Life is a movie about a man quietly failing to deal with a tragic loss. Between his mother’s criticisms (“You missed a spot”), or his brother-in-law’s dark comments, Dan’s family oftentimes seems oblivious and uncaring towards Dan’s suffering. But we also see this is a prison of Dan’s own making. His desire to put up a strong front for his daughters and lack of desire to engage in heartfelt communication with his family has isolated him from them, perhaps for years. Anybody who goes home for the holidays knows in part what this is like. There are some things we just don’t share, even with family. Often to our detriment. The situation with Marie is silly and extreme but it’s the perfect foil to draw Dan out of his shell and force him to heal. Not necessarily by learning any new truths about life or dumping his anxiety onto anyone else but just by learning once again to trust and rely on his family.
For everyone who has struggled to express their feelings to family or felt a little bit oppressed at yearly gatherings; as well as for teens and parents struggling to relate to one another, Which, according to my calculations, should be just about everyone on the planet, Dan in Real Life is the movie for you. Great actors come together for a tiny little movie to say what’s been said many times and many ways. But sometimes you just want to hear it all spelled out for you.