We went to another movie screening. We’d had such good luck with The Kite Runner, you know. And the film we were invited to see had Steve Carell in it and was directed by the guy who directed About a Boy. How could you go wrong? Plus, free popcorn.
So the film starts and it seems to be about Steve and his 3 daughters (he’s clearly a widower). He’s funny in that “serious movie” kind of funny way that comedians get (e.g. Carrey in Truman Show etc.). A few chuckles but mostly him being earnest. Thinking that it would be like About a Boy, with a great payoff and all that, I settled in for all the Act I establishing of characters and little situations (the one daughter wants to drive! The other daughter thinks she’s in love! And the littlest one…just wants her daddy to love her…awwww). And really it’s all going along quite well, until…
(cue organ chords)
The Wacky Family shows up. Oh, boy.
Now I’m not generally against wacky family movies (my husband is, as a rule – take note, Hollywood), but they are extremely difficult to do without resorting to convention and cliché. I am very sorry to report that Dan in Real Life does not transcend these traps. Indeed, it wallows in every cliché that the wacky family movie can present: the football game, playing charades, the unbelievably well-planned and costumed talent show, the four or five extra siblings (none of whom get to develop a character but are handy for background-establishing lines like, “He hasn’t played guitar since she…” [wife died]), big family dinners with embarrassing events ensuing, etc., ad nauseum. I couldn’t believe it – they pulled out every last scene I’ve ever seen in a family-gathering film, and then some. If only they’d had a clambake and a token gay, it would have been worthy of a Smithsonian exhibit on the genre.
They did offer us the latest craze, brought to you by The Family Stone, of brothers fighting over the same woman. Oh, fun. The moment this wrinkle was introduced, I thought, OK, this doesn’t have to be as bad as that film, it can be creative…can’t it? But Family Stone was sort of, well, Oscar material in comparison. At least there were interesting characters in that one – like the token gays (with the added dimension that one was deaf!). I was also reminded of Wedding Crashers as I watched the family football game, and remembered just how much better Isla Fisher was in that film than Emily Blunt’s lame, confused character in this one (she’s shallow! Wait, she’s a saint! Wait, she’s a sexpot!). At least Isla chose one of those and went for it, and she was awesome.
Unfortunately, the situation of the fighting over the woman meant that our friend Steve spent pretty much the whole movie alternating between acting like a dick and, most of the time, pouting. Not super attractive nor fun to watch. Steve’s extremely talented and I love him – I still loved his delivery, his way of offering throwaway lines that just makes you laugh out loud. But he was mostly called upon to mope – and not in his funny Office way – and that was flat-out boring to watch.
And when they tried to give us some tension, they did it in the majorly overdone convention of introducing Another Woman (prettier and younger – this is Blunt) who of course throws our intended couple into chaos, but only temporarily. Because it is painfully obvious from the first moment that Juliette (Binoche) doesn’t like her boyfriend (Dane Cook, the rival brother) and much prefers Steve, and Dane prefers the Other Woman. It’s not even remotely mysterious who will wind up with whom – they don’t even try. I guess they want us to really have squirminess while the wrong people are together, and satisfaction when it all goes right, but it makes for a boring flick when you are just waiting for the inevitable. And they made us sit through a painful scene in which Steve and Juliette try to make one another jealous by dancing like lunatics with their “wrong” person – but it comes off that they are pathetically desperate. And basically, lying to the family and themselves. Which doesn’t make me exactly root for them.
They did manage to surprise me, though. They surprised me by adding what seemed to be completely incongruous elements that don’t belong to the formula (perhaps this was their attempt to break the mold, but since they otherwise were so faithful to it, it didn’t work). For instance, they had the family do aerobics together. Huh? Is this the 80’s? And isn’t physical activity kind of not done in wealthy East Coast families – at least, apart from croquet, walks on the beach, the family football game, and watching polo? Nope, there they all are, doing it on the front lawn (probably ruining the cricket pitch), with Dane’s character leading (I think he’s supposed to be a gym instructor, which…well, yikes) and then Juliette’s (I can’t tell if she’s another instructor or just a gym rat – though there is nothing else in her character to suggest gym rat, including her not-perfect physique. I’m not saying she needs one, I’m saying if you’re gonna make her a gym rat, she’s gotta look like one). Generally, seeing Juliette Binoche sweaty is just unpleasant. Seeing the wacky family sweaty was weird. It didn’t work. And then they put the last scene in a gym to amp up the weirdness (I think they’re still tinkering with that so we can all hope that will change). I don’t know, maybe I’m too stereotypical, but I don’t get gym rat and crossword competitions as belonging in the same family. Maybe as a black sheep rebellion, but not as something everybody loves doing together. Please, go back to skipping rocks and playing charades.
I’m very sorry to report that I detected a trace of misogyny in the film as well, and I’m not just being a hypersensitive feminist (I hope). For one thing, there were two completely gratuitous (too lengthy) shots of women’s butts, in full gyration, filling the screen. This was to show us what the men watching were seeing, but come on – I can tell what’s happening if you just show me the guy’s lechy face. I don’t need the reverse angle. Then there was a several-minute scene involving a song that mocked a woman’s looks. Just going on and on about how ugly she is. I found that terrifically unappealing, and it frankly made me really not like these people who would laugh at it (both those in the movie and those sitting around me). It was plain cruel and went on way too long. It made me think the characters were all jerks. BUT, Yay! The woman shows up, and it’s Emily Blunt! She’s beautiful! Which means she’s suddenly acceptable to this crowd. How nice for her. There’s other stuff – a shower scene in which a woman is naked and a man fully clothed comes to mind – that’s played for laughs and is motivated (somewhat), but when added to the general tone, I really felt uncomfortable watching it. Which doesn’t bode well, since it’s supposed to appeal to women, I think.
My husband put it well: it’s a romantic comedy that’s not particularly funny nor romantic. Which is quite disappointing. Juliette Binoche is miscast and we never really fall in love with her. Carell does his best but isn’t given enough to do. The wacky family is completely underdeveloped, as is Dane Cook’s character – and he needs some acting classes, in all honesty. He overdoes everything (his reaction shots are kind of hilarious) – more like sitcom acting than film. The daughters’ fits are supposed to be funny – and they were, to most of the audience – but I just found them overdone and again, one-dimensional.
My one hope is that they will read the comments of those of us who didn’t love it and maybe make a few changes. I’m not sure how it could be fixed – remove Act II? Drop the wacky family? Actually, set in a big city with just the brothers (and their rivalry, fleshed-out) and Steve’s daughters (and their problems, fleshed-out) would have been cool. The rest was trite window-dressing. The whole thing had such a has-been flavor. And if you couldn’t tell, I don’t recommend it. But I don’t have much hope of it getting better, because most of the audience loved it (I guess they haven’t seen this movie a dozen times), and although we’d been asked to stay after to give our opinion orally, after we said we didn’t like it, we were told they didn’t need us anymore. Ah-hah. They weren’t interested in hearing negative feedback. Not a great sign.
Well, I guess we’ll just wait and see if the critics agree with me – and America in general. If not, then I’ll know we are actually on our way to Idiocracy after all.
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