By David Germain
If you’re already groaning at the prospect of spending time with your own lovable but annoying family over the holidays, think twice about seeing “Dan in Real Life.” Do you really want to donate time and money to hang with someone else’s annoying relations?
A love-triangle romance that plays out among Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche and Dane Cook during a family reunion, “Dan in Real Life” is a surprisingly plain, sappy, even insipid comedy, considering the filmmaker behind it.
After years as a novelist and screenwriter, director and co-writer Peter Hedges made a wonderful film debut with another family-reunion tale, 2003’s indie charmer “Pieces of April.”
That film chronicled the icy history of a black-sheep daughter trying to make amends with her unforgiving clan over Thanksgiving. Those people were truly messed up and beset by adversity, yet they were utterly endearing and genuine.
The gang in “Dan in Real Life,” which Hedges worked up from an original screenplay by Pierce Gardner (the woeful horror thriller “Lost Souls”), are fairly well-balanced and warmly affectionate among one another. And they are boring to the point of aggravation.
Throw in a heavy dose of sitcom artifice and gooey melodrama, and “Dan in Real Life” becomes toilsome.
Carell’s Dan is a widowed advice-column writer raising three daughters, sturdy Jane (Alison Pill, stuck here playing the mother hen after her marvelous performance as a self-righteous sibling in “Pieces of April”), rebellious Cara (Brittany Robertson) and adorable Lilly (Marlene Lawston).
Four years after his wife’s death, Dan’s at a solid if lonely state of resignation, devoted to raising his daughters and not even dreaming of new love.
That changes as he and the girls head to the family homestead in Rhode Island, where Dan’s parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) are playing host to their big clan of kids and grandkids.
At a bookstore, Dan’s sense of romance is magically rekindled by an encounter with Marie (Binoche). The two hit it off immediately, but she turns out to be the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Cook), a nice lunkhead who clearly isn’t as suited for Marie as Dan.
Awkward moments abound as Dan and Marie conceal their dalliance and rising attachment. Dan becomes increasingly frustrated and callous as his attraction grows, while his family embraces Marie as a potentially new darling in-law.
There are occasional flashes of chemistry and budding sentiment between Dan and Marie, which arise more from Carell and Binoche’s low-key charm than from the story in which they’re forced to muck about.
But their little mating dance mostly alternates between bad behavior by the jealous Dan, which makes you wonder why Marie’s feelings for him deepen, and stupid gags and hijinks that would have been lame back in the days of “I Love Lucy.” (A scene where they end up in the shower together is painfully contrived; where is Anthony Perkins and his “Psycho” knife when you need him?)
Emily Blunt, a scene-stealer as Meryl Streep’s overbearing assistant in last year’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” is woefully wasted in an obnoxious role as a woman Dan takes on a double date with Marie and Mitch.
“Dan in Real Life” gets a bit of a toe-tapping boost from a blithe soundtrack of songs by Sondre Lerche, whose musical interludes are welcome respites from the monotony of everything else.
Just when the movie is supposedly reaching a dramatic climax, it slides to its low point as Ma, Pa, grown-up kids and all the anonymous cousins stage a talent show that just goes on and on in nauseating banality.
If this is real life, give us fantasy.