Dan in Real Life is Steve Carell's best movie by far. If you're looking for quotable laugh out loud moments, you'll still go with Anchorman or Virgin, but for a profound emotional experience, it takes Little Miss Sunshine to the next level.
Movie Review: Dan In Real Life
This is the simple story of a widower dragging his three daughters to a family reunion. He meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a book store and hits it off, only to find out that it is his brother's new girlfriend. The weekend gets awkward as he tries to control his feelings but the chemistry is undeniable.
The movie just sits in real situations and lets you feel it. They create awkward situations for Dan and Marie but they don't feel contrived. It's all inherent in being confined to this house for a weekend. They're not keeping some broad secret like a sitcom plot. It's a subtle encounter that just happens to change the entire dynamic of the group. Every chance the film has to make a potential skit out of something, it just deals with it. That is why it is brilliant.
I usually hate stories where characters are just dancing around the issue, but this is an appropriate situation. You don't want to make a big deal out of something that will hurt somebody else. They do talk it out whenever it is allowed, and the brilliant thing is that either way it resolves, somebody gets hurt. That's life and you have to own it and let somebody hurt if that’s what it takes. Otherwise you just exist in suspended animation and never accomplish anything.
The film portrays how good will is much harder to handle than evil. Dan's family is asking way too much of him. Leave the poor guy alone. He's surviving and that's all you can ask. The family tries way too hard with all of their activities. It's completely unnatural bonding. Nobody can just BE.
Dan is the performance of Steve Carell's career. He is so internalized, just getting by and trying to sacrifice his own feelings, which he's under no obligation to do. He lashes out a little but only in a relatively harmless way. You're waiting for a big breakdown but Carell is too good to play it so easily.
I think Dan is a pretty awesome father too. He pretty much gives in to the idea that teenagers are never going to be happy with his guidance. He's a bit overprotective but not obnoxious about it. He does not condescend to the girls as if he knows everything. He really only steps in when an adult has to make a decision.
The only reason I can't be even more lavish with praise on Dan in Real Life is that writer/director Peter Hedges has already written two phenomenal movies, Gilbert Grape and About a Boy. For anyone else, Dan would be their best movie, but for Hedges, it's just his trifecta.