Wednesday, November 21

Dan in Real Life

After being misled by The New York Times review, I recommended "Dan..." to my in laws. "Awesome," they said. When folks get an emotional charge out of a movie, I see it. What do they know? Anyhow? Usually, more than me.

A.O.Scott did such a good job pointing out the movie's charming and unexpected beats:
The characters are funny not just to us but also to one another. Like most people, they use humor as a means of communication and self-defense, which gives the movie a genial, unhurried, lived-in feeling.
...that I missed his complaints:

"The story and the characters do wear a little thin in places. ...exactly who Marie is, apart from the embodiment of wonderfulness, is never quite clear. Nor is it entirely plausible that she would fall for both the dim, genial Mitch and the cerebral, uptight Dan.

"Dan, like many characters played by Mr. Carell, has the curious quality of seeming to be more complicated than he really is."
Doesn't matter what A.O. Scott and I think. The movie's going to do box office.

Dan starts out so well. A widower and advice columnist, Dan is less confident raising his three daughters than he is answering other parents' questions. He loves his girls and they test him. So far, pretty real. Dan's goal? To protect his daughters from the worst blows of growing up. We love him for that. He and the girls head to the family lake for the annual reunion and ritual of closing it for the season.

Mopey and just bad company, his mother throws him out the next morning for a little alone time. He meets Marie (Juliet Binoche) in a bookstore and all at once he feels something like love. With it, the weight of being a widower and besieged father lifts. But when he gets to back to the family cabin, he meets Marie again, his brother Mitch's girlfriend. The story quickly turns into Dan's reluctant but sure pursuit of Marie and the problem of what to do about their infatuation once he knows she returns his feelings. His family looks primed to become the barrel of monkeys that will get in his way, but they are sweet, gentle, and sometimes knowing. Mitch is dense and forgiving, mostly.

Dan's three daughters, the other women in his life, would seem to be the source of his inner conflict over whether to give up his responsibilities and seize the chance for love again.. But he's so busy keeping the secret of his infatuation with Marie from his brother and the family, that the girls are reduced to (pretty funny) noise in three registers. If Dan really was dedicated to his daughters, the ease with which he lets go of that responsibility makes him a shallower character. And he stays that way to the end.

The lesson: The protagonist's goal in the first three scenes must be his goal throughout, unless it's pried from his hands with difficulty. Dan's second act arc is admitting that he loves Marie despite the secrets and inopportune timing. But the arc we wanted was to watch him struggle to choose between his love for his daughters and romantic love with Marie.

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