I often wonder why romantic longing is blown up to such epic proportions in most Hollywood movies. The sight of star-crossed lovers getting hit by giant icebergs on sinking ocean liners is far more common on the big screen than, say, two average folks fighting over which side of the bed to sleep on, yet it is precisely these banal complications of love that inform the lives of mere mortals (i.e., we the paying moviegoers). Call me a sucker for the mundane, but when handled perceptively, I think the "small" revelations of daily life can pack much more emotional punch than even Hollywood's most grandiose romantic fantasies.
'Dan in Real Life' understands this kind of storytelling simplicity. Steve Carell plays recently-widowed advice columnist Dan Burns, an "expert" on relationships, who writes a popular advice column in the local newspaper. Yet despite his outwardly wise appearance, in "real life" Dan struggles to succeed as a brother, a son, and a single parent to his three daughters. Then, on a rare solo outing to a bookstore during a family reunion weekend, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), and the intimate conversation that follows is crackling with sexual tension. At the end of this encounter, Marie drops a bombshell -- she has just entered into a promising new relationship, so it appears that the first woman Dan could love after the death of his wife is now off limits.
Things get truly complicated however, when Dan returns to the Burns family homestead (home to Dan's parents played by Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), only to be re-introduced to Marie, who it turns out is actually dating his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). Unable to express their true feelings for each other, Dan and Marie spend the weekend sparring in private while playing along with the charade for the sake of the family. Now it's up to Dan to take his own relationship advice and finally step up to "real life," rather than continuing to live within his romantic fantasies.
The word "small" is often used in a pejorative sense when it comes to movies, and on the surface, 'Dan in Real Life' certainly earns the tag. The film doesn't strain for laughs, and it takes its time etching out characters and narrative complications, but while such clarity of purpose didn't earn 'Dan in Real Life' big box office numbers, I welcomed the film's fundamentally decent and humane brand of pathos. For once, we have a romantic comedy that doesn't strain for effect or resort to over-the-top plot contrivances to generate drama, but simply presents three-dimensional people in everyday situations we can all relate to. The result may lack the broad laughs we expect from a Carell comedy (this certainly isn't 'The 40 Year-Old Virgin'), but it excels at realism and quiet insight -- making this a "small" movie in all the best ways.
'Dan in Real Life' benefits greatly from the chemistry of its two leads. Carell has perfected the art of the deadpan reaction, but it's a limited shtick that can't sustain a 98-minute romantic comedy on its own. That leaves the luminous Binoche to bring out a newfound sweetness and authenticity in Carell, a quality which becomes the films most winning attribute. There is an adult playfulness between the two (as well as considerable sexual energy) that is shockingly rare in today's romantic comedies, which often "package" good-looking, but chemistry-free stars in order to generate maximum box office potential. The nicest surprise about 'Dan in Real Life' is that it's absolutely free of any such cynicism.
If the film does have a major flaw, it's in the desire to tidy up all of its messy complications with the pat resolution of a sitcom (a good sitcom, mind you, but a sitcom nonetheless). It's clear about 45 minutes in, after a minor character is introduced as a potential love interest for Dan, how the film will resolve its love triangle. Such predictability is a disappointment, since the filmmakers could have easily avoided such a trivial wrap-up while still giving the audience the emotional pay-off it wanted. 'Dan in Real Life' could have had its cake and eaten it too, but it spoiled the recipe with a tad too much sugar.
Still, 'Dan in Real Life' remains a bittersweet slice of romantic whimsy that's worth savoring. It also represents the latest step in the continued evolution of Carell into a true leading man, and gives Binoche her best role since her Oscar-winning turn in 'The English Patient.' Together, they generate believable, warm chemistry in service to a simple story that's very well told. 'Dan in Real Life' may indeed be a "small" movie, but in refusing to betray its innate respect for love between ordinary people, it wins big.
'Dan in Real Life' is presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, framed at 1.78:1 (slightly opened up from its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1). It's a visually simple and direct film, but rendered nicely -- though not quite perfectly -- on Blu-ray.
Befitting a new release, 'Dan in Real Life' is super-clean, and film grain is minimal. The film's color palette is awash with warm browns, and most primaries are muted. If this transfer has a major fault, it's that the orange-amber glow is overdone, with a slight oversaturation that lessens realism and detail (even close-ups of skintones lack the kind of fine texture of the best high-def). There is also a bit of heat to the contrast, and I wish the whites had been toned down just a notch.
Otherwise, 'Dan in Real Life' looks quite pleasing. Depth is robust, and the transfer is never less than razor-sharp. Typical of a Disney release, edge enhancement is not an issue. This is also a very solid encode, there are no artifacts, chroma noise or major defects to report.
'Dan in Real Life' may not be absolutely top-tier high-def, but it's still a four-star affair all the way.
Disney offers up uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround audio (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Dan in Real Life,' along with English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround dubs (all 640kbps) and subtitle options. The film's sound design is too reserved, however, to truly exploit the capabilities of the high-res audio format.
Granted, 'Dan in Real Life' is an intimate comedic drama, but that doesn't mean it had to be so front-heavy. Surrounds are conspicuous by their absence -- even the playful uses of music and outdoor locations are rarely exploited. Even a bit of prominent bleed would have been welcome, but no luck.
However, if considered as a stereo mix with a center channel thrown in for good measure, 'Dan in Real Life' sounds pleasing enough. There is a nice vibrancy to dynamic range (at least for a dialogue-driven movie), with polished integration of bass, music, and effects. Dialogue is clean and well-rooted in the center, and is indeed perfectly balanced with the rest of the mix.
While there is nothing to truly recommend 'Dan in Real Life' as audio demo material, in terms of what it is, it does the job very well indeed.
'Dan in Real Life' is hitting Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard-def DVD version, and both share matching line-ups of extras. It's a nice package, one that looks spiffy on Blu-ray, with just about all of the materials presented in 1080p/i/AVC MPEG-4 video. (Subtitle options on the video-based extras includes English, French and Spanish.)
'Dan in Real Life' is a romantic comedy that bucks convention and doesn't pump up the melodrama for cheap effect. It also lacks the big belly laughs and more biting humor of most previous Steve Carell films, however, so don't expect another '40 Year-Old Virgin.' This Blu-ray release is perfectly nice. The video looks sharp, the audio is simple but well done, and there are plenty of enjoyable extras. 'Dan in Real Life' is probably not a must-own, but it's certainly worth a look.