Dan in real life is an advice columnist about to be syndicated. But though he can give advice to his readers he is not doing so well at home with his three daughters. A widower of four years, he is stuck relationally and his girls are growing up quickly.
The setting is a family reunion at a big lake house. The plot is as familiar as most rom-coms. Dan (the great Steve Carrell) runs into a beautiful woman, in this case Marie, played by Juliete Binoche (La Binoche, as the French say). The twist is that she is his brother Mitch's (Dane Cook) new girlfriend. This poses some comic situations.
As the movie unfolds, there are two standout scenes. First, when the large family has a talent show, and Dan refuses to participate. Yet, he accompanies Mitch's singing by playing guitar. And just when the song is thought to be over, Dan sings a final verse . . . to Marie. That brought tears to my eyes.
And, then a terrific scene where Dan is reading the riot act to his middle daughter, Cara: "What don't I understand, Cara? Please, help me out. What is it? Is it 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 can 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?" Who is he really talking to, if not himself!
There is symmetry in the issues he has with his two eldest daughters at the beginning coming back to haunt him perfectly at the end. For Jane, his eldest, it is driving. For Cara, it is falling in love with a boyfriend after only three days. The plot works to orchestrate this symmetry.
As Roeper and Ebert said in their review, this is a "sweater movie" -- everyone wears comfortable sweaters in it, and it is comfortable, not challenging. Yet, I found it to contain several relevant ethical messages.
First, Dan in Real Life answers the question "what is most important to a man" by showing it is his immediate family, in this case his daughters. Though his girls find him to be over-protective, Dan deeply cares for them, and wants the best for his daughters. Second, there is strong emphasis placed on extended family, parents, siblilngs, etc. There is a real and mutual dependence among famuily members. And finally, it stresses that honesty eventually is the best policy. For a while, Dan is trying to hide things, but he finally confesses all, even when he didn't have to. Instead of spinning things to make himself look better, he tells the straight up truth, and is willing to suffer the consequences. This is refreshingly honest and biblical. We all make mistakes, but our real character emerges in how we handle them.
This is a sentimental movie, but I cried more here than I did watching Away From Her. At one point, there is even the same message given to Dan as there was given to Grant: "Go now!" This is a fun, though light movie, that does point us back to the importance of those closest and dearest to us.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs