I so rarely see movies in the theatre these days, it’s just that much more disappointing when I see one that has lots of potential, and then misses the mark so badly.
Based on the ads and reviews for Dan in Real Life, I expected a smart, life-based movie, centred around a relationship, sure, and funny, but not a rom-com, or at least, not the bad kind of rom-com. And frankly, I can’t help but think that the only thing that distinguishes this from the standard, syrup-ridden, niche-marketed “chick flick” is the fact that it centres around a male protagonist, which suddenly makes it about universal life experiences rather than women’s only.
First of all, this is another movie motivated at least partially by the perfect and beautiful dead wife, as Steve Carrell plays a widower (Dan), who just hasn’t been able to feel quite whole again since his wife’s death. Spoilers below the cut…
Halfway through, I commented that if the Dan & Annie (Juliette Binoche) didn’t get together, the thing had potential–Dan could have displayed some personal growth by virtue of not getting exactly what he wanted and just having things not work out for him. His brother, Mitch (Annie’s initial boyfriend and the conflict preventing them from immediately falling into each others’ arms), started off in ways that demonstrated he was ready to get beyond his former frat boy type ways and grow and mature as a person. Instead, Dan is essentially essentially rewarded with the woman of his dreams for behaving like a childish, self-centred, entitled ass, and when Mitch is rejected, he snaps back to pettiness and dating a needy, shallow, substance-free woman of exactly the type he used to like.
But more than that, I couldn’t see any motivation behind Annie falling for him, especially given that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her relationship with Mitch (the writers didn’t even bother to try to play the “lack of spark” card that is so common in movies like this one). Part of my disbelief of that relationship was that Dan was so unlikeable, but the bigger factor was that Annie didn’t seem to have any actual personality to motivate her in any direction at all. They paid lip service to her having been through some romantic complications in the past, but beyond appreciating Mitch for being “uncomplicated in all the right ways”, she didn’t seem able to articulate wanting anything specific at all for herself. Her interest pretty much began and ended with the most syrupy, hollow one-liners about her desirability and devotion-worthiness. It wasn’t even the sentiment behind those expressions that she wanted–she chose Dan in the end because he wrote the book out of which Mitch took the lines he used on her, even though the lines couldn’t have been written about her in the first place, and were therefore just generic statements for use on how to flatter a woman one might be attracted to (Dan is an advice columnist).
Lessons from the movie: The perfect woman is a cardboard cutout who just wants a man to say the right things (it doesn’t really matter if he’s able to back them up). It’s okay for a guy to be a complete dick to his family and the woman he’s falling for, because he’s totally lovable underneath it all and means well, so of course he deserves his perfect storybook wedding. And that’s without even getting into the discomfort I feel about the way he projects his wife’s characteristics onto his young daughters or the specifics of the situation around the above mentioned shallow woman, Ruthie (no longer exactly) “Pig-Face” Jenkins.