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There a certain sorrowfulness about Steve Carell that has long been what’s made him so effective as a comedian, which seems counterintuitive of course, but because he plays it often so straight-faced and dour, he’s able to give his humor a kind of exaggerated realism that really sells it. Who doesn’t like this guy? It’s what made him so successful in his hit television series The Office and why he’s so heartbreakingly convincing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. We feel pity for him while we also connect. You just want to hug him.
By 2006, he was one year into The Office and had been featured in a number of celebrated comedies, including Anchorman and Bruce Almighty, while showing a hint of some drama in Little Miss Sunshine, a genre-redefining indie film that surely made Dan in Real Life possible. His gift lies in delivering a balance between heavy sentimentality and warm humor, something that Dan in Real Life took to task, crafting an entire film around Carell spinning plates, and while a few crash under the weight of both, for the most part, it’s a good showing, with Carell giving another sincere performance.
Directed and co-written by Peter Hedges, the film follows the titular Dan (Carell), an at-home writer and successful advice columnist who lost his wife to cancer and is now raising three vastly different girls of varying ages. Pretty standard movie-fluff. Jane (Alison Pill) is the eldest, a girl just of age to drive who is constantly held back from doing so by her father for fear she isn’t ready but of course she is and must wait the whole film in order to prove it. Cara (Britt Robertson) is the middle child, feeling the pangs of first love, and Lilly (Marlene Lawston) is the youngest, a fourth-grader with an eighth-grade mentality. She’s pre-requisitely adorable and precocious.
They all travel to Rhode Island, to the large home of his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) where the entire family has come for the annual family gathering, including many brothers and sisters and their children. Mitch (Dane Cook) is Dan’s younger brother and he’s excited by the get-together because he wants to show off his new girlfriend Marie (Juliette Binoche), a woman he claims is unlike any he’s met before. When she arrives however, things get messy because, record-scratch, it turns out, Dan knows her already, something the two spontaneously keep a secret. The movie then spends the remainder of its run time with Dan and Marie trying to keep the secret while the family goes about unaware. It’s all pretty predictable and filled with plenty of indie calling cards but is harmless and even a little heartwarming if you let it in. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Feeling like a disappointment to his daughters because the two older ones are angry at being controlled by their father, Dan heads into town to buy some papers, leaving the entire family to have breakfast without him. He goes to the seaside bookstore and drawn by the rows of reading, drifts inside while another customer enters. She is a beautiful brunette and since the clerk is being movie-clerk busy on the phone and refusing to acknowledge her, she spies Dan and thinks, “ah,” he must work here.
She is Marie of course and Dan, instantly smitten by the allure of the woman, plays along, listening to her lengthy description of what kind of book she is looking for, a volume of words that seem to meet a number of unreachable standards of humor and drama and existential and touching, both intimate and yet accessible by all in making the right impression. In fact, I’ll just write what she says in response to Dan’s question about what kind of book she wants:
Well, something funny might be nice. But not necessarily big, “ha ha ha,” laugh-out-loud funny, you know, and certainly not make-fun-of-other-people funny, but rather something, uh, human funny. OK. And, uh, if it could, um, sneak up on you, surprise you, and at the same time make you think that what you thought was not only right in a wrong kind of way, but when you’re wrong, there’s a certain rightness – to your wrongness. Um… Well, maybe what I mean is, um, more importantly, I’m looking to be swept up. And at the same time, not. Meaning I wanna feel, uh, a deep connection to, uh, something. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m looking for.
So the casual viewer is thinking, “How sweet. She’s quirky and funny and we love her already.” Naturally, that’s the point, but of course, looking more deeply, one can see that what she is describing is in fact the very premise of the movie, or at least, their coming relationship. The film even ends with Dan telling his readers to “plan to be surprised” rather than just planning their lives. See the circle?
Anyway, as good a moment as this bit is, there’s still a better one, and that comes a later when the two are stuck in the house hiding the fact that they are secretly head over heels for each other, even as she tries to maintain her new relationship with Mitch, something that is making Dan a bit crazy, especially since he went and told everyone he met a woman without knowing first that Marie was Mitch’s date. Classic.
Wanting to tell her that he can’t keep this up, Dan follows Marie up to the second floor bathroom where Marie is intending to take a shower. Once inside the room together, he confesses he that he wishes she didn’t exist, immediately regretting it but then sticking to it, promising that he will also make himself less attractive so as not to encourage her as well. He then adds that from now on, he will focus all of his thoughts on only seeing the flaws in her, of which he can’t find any, but nonetheless will do anyway. This only make him more endearing, and she simply laughs and smiles at the breakdown. It’s all pretty charming.
And this is when Jane pops into the room unannounced, forcing Dan to step quickly into the shower, unseen, just in time. Jane is bit enamored with Marie herself, at least with how well-traveled and intelligent she is, and having her trapped in the bathroom, not knowing her father is right there, takes the time to ask if she might have private conversation, prompting Marie to flip on the shower so Dan won’t hear, which naturally soaks him since he can’t move.
As Jane speaks, she confesses how she admires Marie, and as the water seems ready, suggests she talk while Marie hop in the shower. Cue the uh-oh. And so, not wanting to spoil that Dan is right there, Marie fidgets a bit and then, amazingly enough, strips nude, slipping behind the curtain and standing buck naked in front of Dan, all the while as Jane prattles on, innocent of what’s happening behind the curtain.
Dan’s a gentleman though and averts his eyes, turning and then placing a washcloth over his face, which amuses Marie, allowing her to feel more comfortable. Fortunately, there is a window in the shower, and at an opportune time, Dan sneaks out, leaving the girls to their conversation, but not before there is a little magic at play.
This moment is a masterpiece of timing and symbolism, a scene that draws humor from the circumstance but is more so about the drama of what it means to be trapped by the feelings of unreciprocated attraction, or at least one that is forbidden. In this moment, we verify a number of things about Dan, some we already suspect, but are firmly-cemented now, where he proves he is a man of great character and morality. The movie does it right by making Mitch a decent guy so that Dan (and we) have no choice but be noble about his right to be with Marie, even though Dan took a few shots at his little brother earlier in a darkly immature moment at the dinner table. That was a nice character bit as well.
Here though, Dan lets it all out to Marie, and his confessions are funny but also so authentically-delivered, it’s almost a little aching to watch. Carell is terrific, but Binoche is so good in keeping up with him, it’s disarming, the warmth she expresses and ‘knowing’ she shares in her gentle eyes and smiles melting away our worries. And so it is that Marie can’t tell him how she feels, because now Jane is right there. Instead, she removes her clothes and stands naked before him, which is played for a bit of a laugh, yet if you watch it closely, is anything but funny.
Marie made a choice, one that maybe few would. She could have made any excuse to not do what she did, but instead, shed not just her clothes but all of her guards, and basically invited Dan to look upon her and find the flaws, as it were. Think how powerful this gesture is. What does it say to Dan and us? We initially see comedy because that is how the film carefully directs it, but it’s much more subtle and while the two are in the shower, there is much we learn, with Dan clothed and soaked, metaphorically taking that ‘cold shower’ to wash away his desires, and Marie laid bare, giving him the chance to look upon her that suggests an acceptance of his confessions, even if there is no solution.
Now, there is one sensational moment in the shower when Marie first gets in and clutches herself that is devastatingly good. Stepping in, she looks away uncomfortably before suddenly, looking directly at Dan, a look so fleeting and yet so achingly true, it shifts everything. She says, with no words, “here I am,” and it’s so raw, so unexpected, it’s like nothing else in the movie. This is what this moment is all about. It’s is a beautiful relationship already.
Dan In Real Life is not a great movie, a good one yes, but not great. It plays too closely to the rules and tropes, and nearly every scene is manipulated to contrive the characters into positions that continue to prop up the plot. But nonetheless, it does have a good naturedness about it, and takes some challenges with a few of the characters, making it a worthwhile romantic comedy that bends a few conventions. And a scene in a shower that forces two people to consider carefully what and who they are to each other is reason to watch. It’s a great cinematic moment.