In a field of mathematics, Information Theory, a sure event like the sun rising tomorrow reveals absolutely no information. Literally zero. Conversely, the nearly improbable or a surprise reveals nearly infinite information or value. In “Dan in Real Life”, Steve Carell’s Dan in a moment of cathartic surrender says that we always ask young people what is their plan in life, when we should tell them “Plan to be surprised ” Life is all about wonder and surprise. Writer and director Peter Hedges’s “Dan in Real Life” is very sweet and the surprise of the year. Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner’s lyrically comfortable story acknowledges the predictable, but is all about the journey that reveals the surprise.
Steve Carell plays Dan Burns, an advice columnist for a New Jersey newspaper whose column is on the verge of national syndication. Although able to advise others, Dan is suffering in restrained turmoil. He is a grieving widower raising three young daughters: 17-year-old Jane (Alison Pill), rebellious teenager Cara (Brittany Robertson), and youngest Lily (Marlene Lawston). Jane dreads that she is getting inadequate driving time for her license, and secretly wants to go away for college next fall. Cara has found her true love after three days, much to the chagrin of her Dad. Lily pretty much follows her older sisters, but is all for her Dad. Dan’s late wife was the great love of his life, and he does not expect miracles to happen twice. Dan has not dated since his wife’s death. Consequently, he dedicates his life to his daughters. In a nice scene, Dan prepares his girls’ lunches lovingly cutting the crust off the peanut and jelly sandwiches. Despite his selfless intentions, all is not going well. We get that part of the deal is that Dan is suffering in spite of the upbeat facade. And his daughters know.
In complete upset, Dan and the girls drive to Rhode Island for a Holiday family gathering at his parent’s house. The senior Burns’ are wonderfully played by Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney. Following his Mother’s order to take a break, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a bookstore on the coast. Dan and Marie spend a miraculous afternoon together. Marie departs telling Dan that she is currently involved and has a social obligation. Back at the Burns compound Dan tells his brothers, “I met somebody, and she is really something.” At the same time the family is waiting to meet younger brother Mitch’s (charming funny Dane Cook) new girlfriend. Marie is Mitch’s new girlfriend, and she immediately wins over the Burns family. What does Dan do? His brother’s girlfriend is his soul mate.
Steve Carell is spectacular. As Dan he understandably behaves as a jerk in Marie’s presence. Juliette Binoche is quietly beautiful and compelling, and the embers smoldering between her and Carell have an authentic resonance. Carell is hysterical and vulnerable as Dan makes the best of a no win situation. It is the little details that Director Hedges does so well. Daughter Jane (radiant Alison Pill) warns her Dad about making a pass at Marie, reminding Dan “I’m 17. Okay…” Emily Blount (“The Devil Wears Prada) is brilliant and sexy as Dan’s blind date Ruthie Draper, who awakens Marie’s ire. Carell touchingly silences the audience as he secretly sings to Marie, “Let my love open the door to your heart.”
“Dan in Real Life” is all heart. What is not surprising is that “Dan in Real Life” is about life and true lovethe real surprise in life. Steve Carell is amazing. Perhaps his performance will not be overlooked during awards season. Juliette Binoche is a wise and compassionate muse. Peter Hedges poignantly with a sense of humor enrolls us to “Plan to be surprised”in life. After all, that’s all there is.
Watch the movie trailer:
This post was previously published on IMDb.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from official trailer.