I’m writing this in 2018 – the year the best TV Dad of all time died: John Mahoney of Frasier. Behind the grumpiness of Martin Crane was an actor of proper versatility, big in theatre, excellent on TV and – in a relative smattering of rôles – superb on film. In his honour, the grumpy old fathers in the home gathered one Friday night to watch Dan in Real Life. It’s a Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche vehicle, sweet, smooth, funny and rather lovely. As Carell’s Dad, Mahoney centres a big family weekend in the sticks of America, observing things coolly, commenting with warmth and acceptance, bringing a gentleman to the screen with the lightest of touches. Here’s to him.
Dan in Real Life is about a widower, Carell as Dan, who has spent the last few years bringing up three daughters alone. He’s stressed: there’s taxiing to do, sandwiches to make, a beloved wife to miss. And he has developed a newspaper column alongside this, acting as Agony Uncle to a world seeking certainty he doesn’t feel himself. He takes the kids to the annual family get together, pops out for some alone time and has a long, easy conversation with Juliette Binoche’s Marie in a bookstore. Sigh. Old Jack may be past the days of hormonal imbalance at the sight of a pretty woman, but Binoche grabbed my curiosity the way she grabs Dan’s.
And so back to the house and introductions as other parts of the family pitch up. Dan is mid-way through enthusing about the woman in the bookstore when he is introduced to his brother (Dane Cook) Mitch’s new girlfriend: Juliette Binoche as Marie. Yikes.
And then the complications begin as Marie and Dan snatch quick conversations: escalating from embarrassment, to admitted attraction, to clumsiness, anger, comedy and – in a moment that shows his daughters like Marie and that he should get more socially adept – a mix up that leaves a clothed Dan hiding in a shower with the naked Marie. Kudos to all for keeping the lid on the flirting and letting social awkwardness reign.
There are lovely set-pieces along the way, each humiliating Carell into a comedy daze or spurring him to a moment of ghastliness. The infatuation reduces him to the petulance he condemns in his lovelorn middle daughter (Britt Robertson as grouchy Cara), a lack of control he won’t give his oldest, travel hungry daughter (Alison Pill as Jane), and a lack of attention he won’t give his youngest most loving daughter (Marlene Lawston as Lilly). Dan pays a price for all of this, but we’re in romcom for families territory, so the showdown is deft and warm.
Yup – old Jack liked Dan in Real Life. Mahoney and Dianne Wiest as the improbably wealthy parents (just look at the holiday home!) govern a funny, creative holiday. There’s a show put on by the talented, and whilst the business of clashing brothers is dealt with as mechanically as Scripting 1.01 demands, the story is cuddlesome throughout. Yep – I went there: cuddlesome.
As to the performances: all of Dan’s daughters are terrific, working back convincingly from the also believable piss they’re in at him for most of the film. Carell is subtler than elsewhere and carries off burdened in as attractive a manner as modern films allow. Binoche – aaaaahhhh, comment très français – gives the film a much-needed shot of reality. Her feelings, from attraction, to irritation, to jumping into directness and then out again, are the through-line that makes the film work. She is funny, stunning, grown-up and full of cheery guffaws. Old Jack – knowing how awful widowhood can be – so wanted them to work it out and get on with being a family. Binoche makes Marie right for Dan and…okay, the film manipulated me…for all the girls. Come the row and her departure, I was watching keenly through grumpy tears…
Oh, and then there’s Emily Blunt. She wafts in, does sexy-beautiful, rounds out the plot and sails off on a sea of charisma and certain stardom. Who loses?
A sweet, easy film, well-liked by the old men who’d come to raise a glass to the great John Mahoney. Watch it with a winter drink on a summer’s day, for second marriages can happen.