Can it be that Peter Hedges has done it again? Can it be that this second-time director has, for the second time, made a movie that my mother and I both loved?
Yes. Yes, it can be. And this time around it’s even better than Pieces of April. Dan In Real Life is the best romantic comedy I have ever seen. I know I’m given to superlatives, but this ain’t one of them. I can’t think of a single other film—even along the lines of Happy Accidents or You Kill Me, or any of the classics I was introduced to in my film history class this fall—that works quite so well as a pure romantic comedy. Even Wristcutters, another recent favorite of mine, gets the formula wrong when it comes to romance. Sure, those films all have their merits and they work well on other levels, but often the romance at the core is still too gooey for my taste.
What sets Dan apart is that all the characters are three-dimensional, and none of them are too fragile. Moreover, nobody is overly concerned about the fragility of anyone else. People are self-centered, everyone has flaws, nothing is easy, everything is complicated—in short, it’s like real life.
The problem with a script like this is that you have to be very careful that it doesn’t get too mean, and that in turn means that you have to get the casting right. Well, they got the casting right. Steve Carrell is terrific as Dan (and I’m overjoyed to see him branching out from his usual material—I still think he should have won an Oscar® for Little Miss Sunshine), the three daughters give brilliant performances, the parents are spot-on, as are all the siblings and peripheral family members (did you know that Dane Cook could act? I sure as hell didn’t!). There is not a single performance in the film that I took issue with, and that in itself is difficult enough.
Dan In Real Life is a study in perfection. I don’t mean to apply this word in its bubbly, James Lipton-esque use, but rather as a real, quantifiable critical term. In fact, many of my favorite films are fraught with imperfect elements. Still, perfection is not to be scoffed at; Dan has a perfect script, economical but thorough, and ultimately rewarding. It has perfect casting. It has perfect timing. It has perfect editing, and even a perfect soundtrack. To be fair, ‘perfection’ usually means that fewer risks were taken, and granted, I would be loath to describe any aspect of Dan as ‘risky.’ But so what? Not every film has to challenge the boundaries of cinema, or make its audience question basic underlying beliefs. Some movies can just be fun. And when I get to see an advice columnist’s teenage daughter, tears streaming down her face, stand up and scream across the lawn at her father, “YOU ARE A MURDERER OF LOVE!” yes, I’m having fun.