If the sappy new rom-com Dan in Real Life were a personal ad, it might read something like this: "SWM, 40, into long walks on the beach, crossword puzzles, vintage foreign cars and self-pity, seeks SWF, height/age proportionate with identical interests. French accent a plus." Safe, warm and reassuringly middlebrow where his previous work was ironic, sardonic and righteously raunchy, the movie is — after Evan Almighty — further evidence of the softening of Steve Carell. It's a page ripped right out of the Steve Martin playbook, the one where a comic actor is supposed to neuter his or her most appealing qualities in favor of a vague stab at middle-age angst. But, as even an 8-year-old will tell you, no one likes a sad clown.
As the lovelorn widower Dan, Carell scrunches up his shoulders, molds his doughy face into a pallid perma-frown and, for the most part, manages to suppress his considerable gift for physical comedy. While his work in Little Miss Sunshine was something of a revelation — deadpan suicidal grief punctuated by desperate, hilarious flailing — here, that melancholy curdles into mawkishness. Blame it on co-writer and director Peter Hedges: Attempting to craft the kind of bustling, character-packed ensemble comedy that the Brits do so well, he instead comes closer to a less-cartoonish version of Cheaper by the Dozen, or worse, the hypocritical holiday-reunion movie The Family Stone.
Like the latter hug-fest, Dan centers around a cutesy extended-family gathering in New England, where sage old upper-middle-class lefties Nana (Dianne Wiest) and Poppy Burns (John Mahoney) preside over a humongous, shabby-chic cabin straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. Still-single advice columnist Dan — ah, the irony! — arrives with his three uncontrollably precocious adolescent daughters and promptly devolves into a funk. Cue some unsolicited wisdom and homemade apple pie from Mom, and soon Dan escapes briefly for a little seaside reflection and a meet-cute with age-appropriate "hottie" Marie (a ghostly, soft-focus Juliette Binoche). No sooner does he proclaim this mystery woman his new love than does she arrive at the house, on the arm of his cocky little brother Mitch (Dane Cook, struggling to act his way around his ego). As the infatuated Dan and Marie put on a charade in front of Mitch and the rest of the family, Nana and Poppy oversee countless rounds of actual charades, not to mention puzzles, knitting lessons, pancake breakfasts with real maple syrup and an insufferable living-room talent show in which everyone is expected to participate. Everything the Burns tribe needs to know, apparently, they learned in kindergarten.
Despite the odd casting, Carell and Binoche come up with some serviceable chemistry. But Hedges and co-writer Pierce Gardner don't capitalize on the parallels between Dan's female troubles and his cluelessness in dealing with his cusp-of-womanhood daughters. Instead they fall back on platitudes about Dan "giving too much" to his family, or not being open enough to love; no one, it seems, has decided exactly what the hell his problem is. And if you're looking for the suggestion, however subtle, that this pushy, smothering clan of obsessive-compulsive craft-addicts might be partially to blame for his romantic coma, you won't get it here. Emphasizing the bonds of blood relations above all else, Hedges does everything but insert a cast-sung version of "We Are Family" over the closing credits. At least he gets the music right: Indie crooner Sondre Lerche has contributed an appropriately bittersweet song-score that kicks in at just the right moments, usually the ones where it seems a key scene or line of dialogue has been omitted or forgotten altogether. Hedges may not be a great filmmaker, but he sure knows how to white-out his flaws.