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Monday, October 29, 2007

Film Review: Dan in (Not So) Real Life

Carell, Binoche, Cook: Which one of these actors is the cinematic "Kiss of Death"?

Dane Cook has functioned as a sort of skull and crossbones symbol for films that he's been in. Just as you wouldn't eat a cyanide-laced muffin, most filmgoers took a pass on Good Luck Chuck, Mr. Brooks, and Employee of the Month. Many of the same filmgoers may forgo Dan in Real Life despite the fact that Cook is actually sort of OK in it. He's mostly likable, only mildly annoying, and mostly unfunny and that's a pretty good description of the film as a whole.

The actual star is Steve Carell as Dan, who has a remarkable talent for finding nuance, humor and depth in what is a standard-issue rom-com character. The romantic interest is supplied by radiant Juliet Binoche, who similarly finds layers where the writers have merely left crumbs. The rest of the cast is also first rate with Dianne Wiest playing the Mom role usually reserved for Diane Keaton, John Mahoney as crusty old dad, Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz, Emily Blount and the fantastic Amy Ryan sprinkled here and there.

What lets this movie down is a thin wisp of a screenplay that feels like it barely got out of the spitball stage. The contrived nature of the plot entanglements and pat life lessons are beneath the excellent work that the talented cast (yes including Cook) does here. Carell is an advice columnist widower raising three daughters. On his way to a yearly family get together in picturesque Rhode Island he has an (amusing) meet-cute with an interesting woman only to find upon arrival at his parents house that she is brother Dane Cook's new girlfriend.

In the 1940's this would have been punched up with killer gags and smart witty dialogue by the likes of Garson Kanin or Donald Ogden Stewart and the silliness of the plotting and unreality of so many of the situations would be easily swept aside in the fun. Unfortunately we have no great gags and precious little wit, just a few moments that suggested another much funnier movie that might have been. An improbable scene in which Dan's prospective new employers come to the family house (!) on a day's notice (!!) to meet him merely fizzles out inconsequentially where in the hands of a great screenwriter and director hilarity would have been in the offing.

The pity is that Carell has been in one of the best romantic comedies of recent times, The 40-Year Old Virgin, a film that showed that the comedy needn't suffer for the romance and vice -versa. Instead Dan in Real Life never transcends its ultimate destination as a comfort-food movie, meant to be watched home alone on a dreary weekend with a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

Dan gets two out of five pints of ice cream:

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