When Dan (Steve Carell) wakes in the morning, his bed is littered with papers and his laptop, sure sign that he’s been working late and has no sweetie with whom to cuddle. He does, however, have three lovely daughters, to whom he is plainly devoted. He does their laundry, drops them at school, makes their crustless sandwiches for lunch. Aw.
This introduction to Dan in Real Life suggests that he’s pretty much fine, a dad who’s found himself in raising his intelligent, well-behaved children, balancing that richly rewarding identity with his professional one, writing a weekly “parents’ advice” column for a local newspaper. It even appears the girls mostly appreciate his doting, though high-schooler Cara (Brittany Robertson) is currently in the throes of new and mutual love with classmate Marty (Felipe Dieppa). “What you’re feeling,” asserts her father as he quite literally drags her away from Marty in front of their friends, “is young and reckless and not thought out.”
Now you know: following the tenets of the family-based rom-com, Dan will meet a woman, indulge in some “reckless and not thought out” feelings, and arrive at a deeper understanding of his daughters while also conveniently discovering an ideal replacement mom. But even as the plot’s general parameters are predictable, and even as you know the Carellish quirk factor will be high, Dan still goes more wrong than it needs to.
The fluke that jumpstarts plot is as unoriginal as it is annoying. That perfect lady-love Dan will meet—the literarily inclined, sensuous beauty Marie (Juliette Binoche)—wows him when they meet cute at a book store near Dan’s parents’ Rhode Island shore home. He’s in town with the daughters in order to spend a traditional, extended family holiday, visiting the “Book & Tackle Shop” to get a break from all the coupled-off, happily married adult relatives. It’s been two years since the wife died, but Dan’s still smarting.
At first, his insta-connection to Marie seems fortuitous and so very conducive to his own self-image. She listens to his life story, sympathizes with his loss, admires his fortitude. Indeed, Dan seems a star in this version of himself, reflected in Marie’s wide eyes. And then the other shoe drops: when they part ways and Dan makes his way back to family HQ, his I-met-a-girl giddiness fades quickly when he learns Marie has her own reason to be in town this weekend. She’s the great new girlfriend his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) has been going on about. Erk.
Convinced that he’s the better match for Marie, Dan proceeds to act out throughout the weekend, competing with Mitch, correcting his treatment of Marie, gazing longingly whenever she steps into view. At times this view is more complete than others, as when they find themselves in a shower, he fully clothed and she naked. She bonds with the daughters, offering romantic advice to Cara, college advice to Jane (Alison Pill), and art project advice to fourth-grader Lilly (Marlene Lawston). Both Poppy (John Mahoney) and Nana (Dianne Wiest) beam on Marie, and Dan’s bond with her (at least as it exists in his mind) is exacerbated by Marie’s many fine qualities, on display in a crude arrangement of time-stretching activities: she’s athletic (demonstrated in a family football game), flexible (family aerobics session), and compassionate (family talent show).
All this to make clear the point already made clear in the first encounter in the bookstore: Dan believes Marie is his soulmate. He also resents his brother Mitch, of course, a callow pretty boy and oh yes, a plagiarist. Dan’s behavior is increasingly creepy—possessive, obsessive, and utterly self-centered. And it’s a lot less conventionally “funny” when you realize where this behavior is putting Marie, namely, in between two brothers who exhibit little concept of generosity or empathy. Why are they her only two options? She appears to be accomplished and independent-minded (it’s not evident how she spends her time outside this dully idiosyncratic family or how she was attracted to Mitch for even one second). And yet she feels compelled to pick one stereotypical boy over the other.
By the time Marie falls into a lovely afternoon montage with Dan—at a bowling alley no less—you’ve long lost hope that she might ever be more than an object to illustrate something about the brothers’ relationship. Maybe that they’re still adolescents at heart, “young and reckless and not thought out.” Maybe that they’re more alike than Marie imagines. Or maybe that Nana and Poppy didn’t spend enough time with them as children. The particular something that is illustrated isn’t so significant as the fact that it depends on Marie playing an excruciating, thankless role. It’s not original, but it certainly is depressing.