Bad movies invariably stem from bad ideas, and the worst of the several rancid ideas packed inside of "Dan in Real Life" is that Steve Carell could be the new Alan Alda.
Carell's entire comic identity is based on men who are never quite in the here and now, or are acutely aware that they live in a deadpan absurdist existence to which the only real response is an insanely blank stare.
But in the latest case of Hollywood undermining comic artists who resist being categorized – and thus represent something dangerous – Carell has somehow been convinced to play a Jersey suburban widowed dad raising three growing daughters while writing a newspaper column on how to be a Jersey suburban widower dad raising three growing daughters. The supposed human factor in this formula is that Carell's Dan gives and gives and gives, and has nothing left for himself.
Until one day, during a weekend (or is it, as things play out on screen, month-long?) family reunion in Rhode Island, Dan runs into lovely Marie (Juliette Binoche, of all actors) in a bookstore, and they nearly charm the pants off each other before they've finished breakfast coffee and muffins. He's smitten, but then rapidly learns back at the family home that she's the new main squeeze of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook).
For the remaining painful hour-plus of the film, Carell must go around in a state of emotional rigor mortis, unable to tell anyone the truth of the matter and occasionally slipping into Binoche's bathroom for some archly staged attempts at farce by director and co-writer Peter Hedges, who similarly struggled with the overwrought family comedy, "Pieces of April." In the process, Carell must diminish his own innate gifts until they vanish altogether, apparently fulfilling someone's insane notion that he would do well acting – get this – serious and emotionally pent-up and, worse, like a real dad. It makes about as much sense as casting Rowan Atkinson in one of Nancy Myers's feel-good "adult" movies, or, in an earlier era, pairing Buster Keaton with Frank Capra.
The irony is that almost nothing about the film except Binoche – who is never less than herself, and thus, stunning (and in nearly perfect American accent for good measure) – is the least bit "real." Certainly not Carell's hopeless attempt at Alda in 2007, nor the family around him, who look like they've stepped out of an L.L. Bean ad. Reality, especially for a comic of Carell's genius, can be a scary thing. Grade: C–