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Dan on the Big Screen

Steve Carell aims for serious-actor status


Part of me is secretly in love with Juliette Binoche. Whether it is her delicious voice and the seductive, airy way she breathes her vowels, or if it's the fact that she looks better at 43 than she did at 23, the woman is a gift from the French to American cinema. Proof is in films such as Chocolat, Breaking and Entering and my personal favorite, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I am not one to normally look a gift horse in the mouth. However, I do reserve the right to be skeptical even when the film I am about to see features Binoche but looks Hollywood-ized and predictable. The trailer for Dan in Real Life was simple and full of glossy manipulation, yet it poked the embers of my curiosity with its 30-second montage of some of the film's funny and poignant moments. I found myself helplessly lured in. I decided I would pay good money to see this film on opening weekend. Would I enjoy it or would it make me, an indie-film-loving snob, groan and roll my eyes at its predictability?

This new film—probably better known as the new Steve Carell movie—was co-written and directed by innovative wordsmith Peter Hedges, whose writing credits include both the novel and screenplay of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, adapted screenplays for About a Boy and A Map of the World, and whose directorial debut of his screenplay Pieces of April received much deserved recognition from the media and film worlds.

In Dan, Carell plays a widower and father of three girls. He's a journalist who writes an advice column on family and parenting issues, and his three lovely and precocious daughters each act as their own textbook, off-the-shelf stereotypes of teenage girls in middle America. They're cute and funny but don't pack much depth.

The film is one part reality, one part Hollywood. It's a very good introduction to the world of gritty indie film for the general masses of blockbuster filmgoers, perfect spoon-feeding material for those who require a happy ending with everything tied up with a nice little bow. Hedges' script is honest and touching, perhaps not as surprisingly honest as his earlier works, but the touch of his genius is still there. His characters are flawed and real, and that makes them believable. Any parent seeing the film will certainly relate, laughing at the familial strains and uncomfortable moments, sighing at the tender moments that pull at the heart strings, of which there are plenty. And the supporting cast packs a mighty wallop, including luminaries such as Diane Wiest, John Mahoney, Emily Blunt and—it may be hard to believe—Dane Cook.

But, is an all-star lineup, headed up by Carell and Binoche, enough to make this film a success? It's fall, and with Oscar contenders lining up their release dates to qualify for this year's awards like frozen turkeys at Wal-Mart, Dan is a breath of fresh air and simplicity. It doesn't require a lot of thought, it doesn't involve wrenching emotional manipulation or heavy-handed messages. The film is about life, love and family; it's sort of a cross between The Family Stone and countless other feel-good movies released last year. Undoubtedly it will have some box-office success. But with mediocre reviews filling up magazines, newspapers and Web sites, Dan is taking its share of slaps, too, as well it should.

Part of that is due to the end result of the film. After the laughs, after the heartstring tugs and after the refreshing (or irritating) simplicity, Binoche is endearing but, unfortunately, in a benign, underdeveloped way. And Carell is not overwhelmingly good as a serious actor. His strained looks and heavy-hearted sighs aren't enough to breathe total believability and life into the film. It is a "dramedy," but it feels like the studio executives released a film they wanted, something glossy and sure to be a crowd pleaser, rather than what perhaps the writer, director and actors signed on for, which, judging from their status and previous works, was probably a character-driven piece meant to be meatier at its core than the meager pickings delivered on the screen.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, somewhat. It was an escape from life for two hours, and I did laugh. I felt my heart swell up at times. Anyone raised in a big family is sure to feel the same. But was it a good Binoche film? Not even close. And I do expect more from the guy who wrote such passionate, heavy, perfect cinematic characters as Johnny Depp's Gilbert Grape and who, as a director and writer, made me actually like Katie Holmes for a moment in Pieces of April. As far as I'm concerned, that's a monumental task in itself.

For me, Dan in Real Life, straddles the fence between a C-plus and a B-minus. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad enough to throw me off Peter Hedges' films for life.

Dan in Real Life plays at Northgate, Edwards 9 and Edwards 21.