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'Dan' director creates comedy from the heart, not the groin

Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche star in Touchstone Pictures' "Dan in Real Life." (Touchstone Pictures/MCT)

Peter Hedges is known for making heartfelt, emotionally accessible films about people hurting.

And Dan, in "Dan in Real Life," fits that bill. He's a widow. He's raising three girls on his own. He sees his late wife in them. And he's lonely.

"They asked me to do some re-writing on this Steve Carell comedy," Hedges recalls. "I wouldn't have thought that was a good fit. But I guess they'd seen my other, earlier stuff. Because this is my kind of comedy, comedy with a human face."

The writer of "About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and the writer-director of "Pieces of April" first took on re-write duties only to become the film's director. "Dan in Real Life" is about that sad, responsible man, a guy with character who meets the woman of his dreams - his brother's new girlfriend.

"I think the thing that I was able to bring to this is finding ways to show people (played by Carell and Juliette Binoche) trying not to fall in love," Hedges says. "I wanted to show Dan and Marie, their characters, that they knew they shouldn't be together and worked toward that. Ultimately, love wins. It's a romantic comedy, after all."

When you see Hedges' name in a movie's credits, "you know you're in for a unique blend of humor and heartbreak, with the bruising and healing powers of family right at the core," notes Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. Hedges had no intention going in to make "a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy." He wanted to work against convention. So he cast Juliette Binoche, the Oscar winning French star not known for comedy, opposite Carell.

"She wanted to be funny, and when I met her, I was struck by her laugh," Hedges says. He knew right away she would be up for even the silliest moments. "She can be funny doing her little Jazzercize thing (in a big laugh scene). But she really lays her heart out there, you know?"

Add that line to Hedges' entry in "The Film Encyclopedia." He is that rare filmmaker (he started his career as a playwright-turned-novelist) who puts the heart first. In "About a Boy," a selfish man (Hugh Grant) reaches beyond himself to take care of a poor child and his mother. In "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," a small-town man (Johnny Depp) finds love in spite of being trapped in a life supporting a loving but morbidly obese mom and a mentally retarded brother. And in "Pieces of April," a prodigal daughter (Katie Holmes) tries to make one memory that matters with her sour mother (Patricia Clarkson), a woman dying of cancer.

Hedges seems permanently out of step with the Hollywood vogue. But he can live with that.

"I know there's this movement to make really hard-edged R-rated romantic comedies, after `Wedding Crashers,' `40 Year-Old Virgin' and `Knocked Up,'" Hedges says. "There ought to be room for my kinds of comedies, too. Not below the belt, but from the heart. Every movie I do tests that theory, especially this one."

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