Unreal Dan in Unreal Life


It’s Friday. We’re in the mood for a light movie. We opt for a lighthearted rom-com with Steve Carell. Dan in Real Life. He’s a widower with a big goofy family. Dane Cook’s in there. How can you go wrong with all that?

Long story short, we go wrong with that.

Rule number one of storytelling is that you are true. True means that you have to make the actions of your characters believable. We suspend our disbelief every day to allow ourselves to settle into a good story and to let a good story settle into us. Flying crocodile-zebra hybrids attack earth? Sure. Julia Roberts’ character falls in love with Hugh Grant’s character? Why not. Twelve convicts drop behind enemy lines on June 5, 1944 to gunk up the Nazis? I shall get the popcorn. These two extraordinarily beautiful women are going to have their way with the pizza guy? They ordered a sausage pie, after all. Aaaaaalright…for the next 2 minutes and forty-three seconds.

And we will do this as long as what your characters are doing resonate with real life (you know, except for the porn because our genitals have different rules when it comes to real life). But if you break this rule, your audience is unforgiving. Last month I turned off the movie The Nice Guys because of the insanely implausible action of a character. Up until then the movie had been extremely fun to watch and I’d been giggling rather than shaking my head at its ridiculo-hilarious plot. But I just couldn’t get over that one unbelievable action.

While some of the interactions and actions of the characters do ring true, where Dan in Real Life fails on the (ahem) real life-o-meter is in its depiction of family. It has to be the corniest, most rigged family since The Waltons was on the air. Evidently, this family gets together once a year to play nine thousand competitive games, from guys against ladies crossword puzzle-offs to charades to sing-offs to scrabble to a mind-numbing-un-fucking-real talent show to top off all of the crap. There’s the obligatory family football game in the yard. A thing which I can stomach as long as it’s the only family oriented game, but when it comes at the end of this feel-too-fucking-good-a-thon it was just another nail in its unbelievable coffin. By the time Dane Cook (whose job it is, I guess, to run an aerobics class) leads the entire family in a synchronized aerobics class, I have had enough.

Additionally difficult to stomach is the frou-frou attitude towards everyone. This family gets along in a way that is just not realistic. Yes, I get along with my family. But in a nanosecond the quirks, habits, and tendencies of my siblings and parents can grate on my nerves enough to make me contemplate murder. Yes, the gift of bad tempered rage is handed down through the males in my family like our hairy knees, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get irked by family members. It’s what we do. The ability to go from love to hate or vice versa is what makes being in a family special. The family in Dan in Real Life acts as though they are a bunch of relative strangers who are actors who have been told to be in love with one another and do anything they can to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. As Sheldon Cooper might say, what are you hippies at a love in?

The plot revolves around a widower (of course) who falls immediately in love with Juliette Binoche. The problem is that she is his brother’s girlfriend who is visiting his family for the first time. Now, Juliette Binoche is an extremely fall-in-lovable woman. But the entire family instantly gives her lovesick googly eyes that don’t exist unless you are being paid hourly to give them. At one point one of Steve Carell’s daughters follows Juliette Binoche into the bathroom to ask for life advice. So a girl who decides to follow a woman she didn’t know a day ago into the bathroom to ask her for advice? When was the last time you asked for a stranger’s advice while they were taking a shit? As it turns out, Juliette Binoche turns on the shower, which is so loud that you can (and she can) barely hear the girl murmur on about the life-changing issue she’s contemplating. The gag is that Steve Carell is standing in the shower with all of his clothes on and then Juliette Binoche is forced to get in the shower naked to continue the ruse to trick his daughter. So, she gets naked in front of a teenage girl she doesn’t know.

The movie just gets continuously improbable while setting up the most unreal scenarios, and it does so in order to force the movie and its characters into its little box of happy warm family, sad happy warm member of that family meets someone so love can make him happy again, and enter problem.

The only thing more annoying than the improbability of the plot is the emoted characters. There’s the overly sensitive dad. The absurdly understanding brothers and their absurdly understanding wives. There’s the oh-so-fucking-precocious little girl who has more wisdom and understanding of life at the age of six than I do now at forty-three. And to top it all off, there’s the teenage girl. Frankly, I think that warnings of sexual content and graphic violence should come alongside warnings of an actress overacting a teenage girl. After forty minutes of her shrieking complaints and constant state of vocal agita, I was ready to commit any kind of murder I could get my hands on. And they all know exactly what to say. Argh!

Finally, soul shattered, I give up on my snide comments and mean-spirited jokes and center myself by doing dishes. From the kitchen I only hear the whole family walk in to the bowling alley (to take part in a big charming warm family bowling match) and catch Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche making out during a game of bowling. Naturally. Because who doesn’t make out when they’re bowling?

As I overhear Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche’s wedding (at the parents’ house a year later) I wonder if the problem is my family. Maybe we’re a bad family and they’re a good family. I imagine the swear fest that would result in a family game of charades. I wonder how my dad would react to someone asking him to put the remote control down to mime Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In the end I decide that we’re not a bad family, we’re just real.

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