Dan in Real Life has this much going for it: It is not the worst Steve Carell film of 2007. That honor, of course, goes to Evan Almighty, which even the Lord walked out of during the second reel. Fact is, Dan in Real Life isn't really much of a film at all — it's more like a montage of other movies, with Carell serving as host of what could pass for a prime-time AFI special.
One could fill this entire space with the titles of films from which writer/director Peter Hedges nicks his story, but for the sake of expediency, we'll narrow it down to a desert-island handful: Home for the Holidays, The Family Stone, Sleepless in Seattle, What About Bob?, and Hedges' own excellent Thanksgiving-dinner-flavored Pieces of April. Assemble a cast — Carell, Dane Cook as the brother, Juliette Binoche as the brother's girlfriend, Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney as the parents, Emily Blunt as the blind date, and assorted other familiar faces posing as family members gathered in an idyllic oceanside spot — and the dots connect themselves.
Dan in Real Life isn't technically a "holiday film," as it doesn't appear to take place during a holiday, but there might as well be a Christmas tree perched in the corner and a Thanksgiving turkey carved on the table. So, naturally, there will be merriment, melancholy, recrimination, reconciliation, and, yes, touch football. Heartache served with hot cocoa too. And pancakes, so fluffy and warm that the theater will smell of Christmas morning even in early fall.
And there will be young children who say things like "You're a good father but sometimes a bad dad" and "Love isn't an emotion — it's an ability." There will even be an ornately lit family talent show staged in the living room during which one man sings to someone else's lover Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door," and she will cry when he reaches the climactic coda: "When tragedy befalls you, don't let it drag you down/Love can cure your problems/You're so lucky I'm around." So lucky, awwww.
So, yes, there will also be love, of course — dear, sweet love coaxed from the shriveled heart of a widower named Dan (Carell) whose wife has been dead for four years. Dan has mourned while trying to raise three daughters, ranging in descending age from angst-ridden (Alison Pill) to horny (Brittany Robertson) to precocious (Marlene Lawston).
But despite his alleged acumen in the field of parenting — he's an advice columnist for the local paper, in an unspecified New England town — Dan's a fairly out-of-touch father, unwilling or merely unable to treat his girls with the soft guiding touch he demands of other parents. Thankfully, Dan doesn't have to spend too much time with the kids: A few minutes in, he packs them into the car for a road trip to Rhode Island, where his parents live in a cabin on the shore. There, their estimable brood has gathered for what appears to be a 12-day weekend that will involve morning aerobic workouts set to disco standards. The girls occupy their time with doting relatives; Dad sleeps in the closet with the ever-thumping dryer and gets visited by a newspaper syndication company hoping to make Dan its family man just as his own kin are turning on him.
While in town retrieving the morning paper from the tackle shop/book store, Dan bumps into Marie (Binoche), who, in the fog-bound glare of dawn's early light, is looking for a book she can describe only as "human funny." The twosome retreat to a pier, where they bond over hot tea and giant muffins. He tells her his story ("Then she got sick; then she was gone") while she comforts him with puppy-dog eyes and mile-wide grins. They are, of course, in love at first bite. Only, as it turns out, Marie is bound for Dan's family's house — where she is to meet Dan's brother Mitch (Cook), who happens to be her new boyfriend. Dan is crushed. He spends the next several days goading Mitch, flirting with Marie, and avoiding his daughters until he becomes perhaps the most unpleasant character in the movie.
Dan is the kind of role at which Carell excels — the broken Everyman who's more shadow than flesh and more comfortable lashing out than actually connecting. The charitable might view Dan in Real Life as a sort of spiritual sequel to The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Dan's the little man Andy might have become had his One True Love abandoned him with three children to whom he can't connect, because every time he looks at them, he sees the remnants of his former life. Or it could just be that Dan in Real Life steals from that line in Virgin about Carell looking kinda like Luke Wilson, since Carell is, after all, playing here the Luke Wilson role from The Family Stone.