The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Office, Anchorman: Steve Carell knows how to do funny. In Dan In Real Life, he shuts his head in a freezer; hides in a shower while fully clothed (and gets soaked, natch); and tumbles off a rooftop. He gets hurt, he makes a twat of himself. It’s chuffing hilarious. Except Dan In Real Life isn’t really a comedy. It’s a tender, bittersweet romance. Does geeky, freaky Steve Carell know how to tug the heartstrings as well as tickle the funny bone?
Dan (Carell) is a widower, newspaper advice columnist and dad to three girls. He’s resigned to singledom until a weekend get-together at his parents’ Rhode Island house. In a bookstore in town he meets free-spirited Marie (Juliette Binoche). She’s gorgeous, but not available. It doesn’t matter: they talk, they flirt, they connect. Then Dan discovers she’s the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). Awkward? You betcha.
Quickly dousing the sparks, the (non)-couple spend the weekend with Dan’s extended family, pretending they never met. It’s ripe for social embarrassment: Carell cringing as he’s forced to stare at Binoche’s lycra-clad backside during a morning exercise workout; squirming as his teen daughter tells him off for flirting with the guest; wincing as his family congratulate Mitch on Marie. You feel for the guy.
Like Little Miss Sunshine, another movie that Carell changed gears for, this is older and wiser than the majority of recent American comedies. It’s unabashedly middle-aged; each gentle moment weighed down by past baggage and buoyed up by a hopeful, second-chance optimism. Indie helmer Peter Hedges (Pieces Of April) finds moments of fragile tenderness: a kiss in a deserted bowling alley is impossibly romantic; Dan talking about his wife’s death is framed through a teary, rain-streaked window. When they first meet, Marie says she’s looking for a book that’s “funny, but not big ha-ha-ha laughter... something human and funny that could sneak up and surprise you”. And that’s exactly what Dan is.