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Family man

Movies | Kids are the fount of wisdom in Dan in Real Life

Issue: "Saving Isaac," Nov. 10, 2007

Dan in Real Life (rated PG-13 or some sexual innuendo, and language), a surprisingly enjoyable family film disguised as a romantic comedy, follows a sitcom formula. Yet within that structure, characters are given some room to become real. Dan (Steve Carell), a family-advice columnist who is also a widower with three girls, leaves suburban New Jersey and goes to a family reunion in seaside Rhode Island. While there he meets a woman (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore who is, unbeknownst to him, dating his younger brother (Dane Cook). The usual collisions of awkward moments are touching, sometimes realistic, and often quite funny.

Try to recall the last time you saw a movie in which a family was represented as a group of loving, non-neurotic, heterosexual adults with mostly responsible, intelligent, and responsive children. Dan's family is so ideal, so unlike the families we get in modern media, that it feels delightful, impossible, and anachronistic all at once. Whatever else it does, their togetherness demands an explanation, because in the absence of a reason it seems downright abnormal in the modern context. Unfortunately, that reason never comes.

While his nuclear family guides Dan into the arms of love, the film still falls for the prerequisite ailment of modern cinema: Children are the voice of wisdom to parents. While Dan's parents and siblings offer helpful insights, Dan learns significant life lessons on flirting, driving, and true love from his three daughters.

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The corollary is that if kids are the adults, the adults must behave like teenagers. While Dan is an emotional 15-year-old throughout, the plot rewards him-not by letting him grow up-but by concluding with an agnostic form of grace. The music of Danish wunderkind Sondre Lerche intones this logic over the final credits: "If things go right we're meant to be."

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