Monday, November 5

Murderer Of Love

If I say that I can guarantee you Dan In Real Life is ten times better than you think it is, it's only because you probably think it's a piece of shit. The marketing for the film has been terrible, pushing the movie as the guy version of that Mandy Moore/Diane Keaton turd from earlier in the year. "A widowed advice columnist spends all his time protecting his three daughters, and learns that he has to let go...of his girls, and his heart! Turns out someone who makes his living giving advice could use a little advice himself!"

What's most interesting about this description is that it's totally dead-on, and yet almost comically wrong. The movie is in no way the sort of facile heartstring-tugger that the ads would make it appear to be.

Early in the film, Dan's youngest daughter tells him solemnly that "you're a great father, but sometimes you're not a very good dad." In a shittier movie, this would be where the music swells and Dan looks at a picture of his dead wife. Instead, this line triggers a hilariously dead-end argument about whether the little girl came up with this on her own, or if she was fed that line by one of her older sisters. (" I can make things up! I'm in THE FOURTH GRADE.")

The ads seem to imply that he's an advice columnist whose life is hurf durf a total mess. In the film, though, the opposite is true: Dan has his life together. The film opens with a touching sequence where he wakes up before dawn to write his column, so he can finish the laundry and get the girls up for school. In fact, the advice column plays no real role in the movie, and I wish it had been dropped altogether. Nobody else in the movie's large cast has an identified job, but more about that in a second.


An aside: is there any cinematic profession more fetishized than "advice columnist?" I mean, how many professional advice columnists are there in the country? Twenty-five?

And, just as Sex In The City was criticized for the unrealistic portrayal of Carrie's lavish lifestyle on a journalist's budget, this film has similar issues: Dan, an unsyndicated advice columnist, lives in a large two-story shingle-sided house in the Boston suburbs and drives a pleasingly fussy Mercedes station wagon:

But, again, more about this aspect of the movie later.


The movie is a very solid A-, thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, with a surprisingly low-key tone and an appealling cast. Oh, and Sondre Lerche supplies a greatly affecting soundtrack.

I recommend it highly. I don't want what I'm about to write to take away from the fact that I really liked the film and think you would enjoy seeing it.


Aside from the quality of the film, though, the class aspects of the movie and what it says about us as an audience and a society are really fascinating.

One thing that's remarkable about our visual culture in the last ten years is that, suddenly, everyone is beautiful. The sort of interesting-looking character actors that populated the backgrounds of movies and TV shows in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s have largely disappeared, replaced by uniformly young and gorgeous actors.

(Even our ugly actors are good-looking now; Phillip Seymour Hoffman would shine like a golden god in, say, a 70s Robert Altman movie.)

I'm sure there's a valid thesis to be made about why this is, possibly due to escapism brought about by America's increasing isolationism, or something. That's not that interesting to me. What *is* interesting is that, all of a sudden, everyone is rich, too.

The ludicrously large apartments that were mocked endlessly on Friends a decade ago have become de rigeur on television now. They're tastefully appointed and well-decorated, regardless of what the character's profession is. Charlie and Alan Harper's living room makes you wonder where they got that cool lamp; Gabe and Julie Kotter's apartment made you want to kill yourself.

A recent plotline on How I Met Your Mother that explored just how the characters afforded their sitcom lifestyles (answer: massive credit card debt) was as shocking to our suspension of disbelief as seeing a boom mike dangling over Barney's head.

I've written before about "lifestyle porn", usually in context of displaying ostentatious wealth onscreen. James Bond movies are the usual example of this genre. However, Dan In Real Life is another, and much more hardcore, form of lifestyle porn.

The film looks (literally and intentionally, I like to think) like the movie adaptation of a J. Crew catalog. It's all of our most cherished familial fantasies come to life: a close-knit family of inherently decent and loving people spend a long weekend in their large Cape Cod vacation house. During the day, they engage in various kooky and good-natured family competitions: boys versus girls crossword contests, an inter-family talent show, impromptu sing-alongs, early-morning calisthenics on the lawn. In the evening, they linger into the night over lavish but homespun meals, served on a rough-hewn table decorated with tea lights. They've died and gone to Martha Stewart Living.

They're not rich, exactly...despite all the clear signs of wealth, the family is solidly upper-middle-class in both its values and its aesthetic. Dan's affair with his brother's girlfriend is a scandal, not something to be shrugged over while sipping champagne, and there are no flashy dressers in the family. You get the sense that patriarch John Mahoney bought all of this stuff by working at a job. Perhaps he was an English professor (as Mahoney himself actually was in the 70s), or maybe he founded a company that made, I don't know, ruggedly old-fashioned outdoor gear for the serious fly fisherman.

It doesn't matter. What does matter is that we're never actually told any real details about the family. Dan is the only one with an identified job; there are kids everywhere--including an Asian girl--but good luck figuring out whom they belong to, or even who's a sibling and who's a spouse. No one has a personal agenda or what actors call "motivation." Like the best pornography, Dan In Real Life stays vague enough that you can project your own personal desires into it.

The outsider of the group, Juliette Binoche, IS wealthy. She has an accent and she's travelled extensively, living in a handful of countries. The family unreservedly loves her--Wiest jokingly tells Dane Cook at one point that they prefer her to him (NO DUH)--and welcome her warmly. But in an utterly fascinating twist, it's very vaguely implied that though wealthier than the family, she doesn't have as much money. She's higher-class, not necessarily better-paid, and life is getting rougher for her.


All of the above might sound like a criticism of the film, but in fact it's anything but. The film may be an unrealistic fantasia, but it's a vision that's enormously appealling to me. You know you're being had, but you allow yourself to be swept up in the possibility that it could be real.

Tarantino (sorry) talks about "comfort films," movies you put on just to hang out with the characters again. This movie certainly qualifies, almost becoming a cherished daydream we return to throughout our lives. In my 20s, the daydream involved epic slow-motion kung-fu, but as I get older it starts to look more and more like a crowded Cape Cod vacation house.

The film serves, in its own way, as a vital document, a chronicle of bourgeois aspiration circa 2007. But it's more personal than that. We watch a James Bond movie and know, deep down, that we'll probably never drop an Aston Martin off with the valet of a five-star hotel in Monte Carlo.

But all of us suspect that, if only we could become the more perfect versions of ourselves we know we're capable of being, we could take our rightful place at that large family dinner, sit at the rustic table loaded with home-cooked food, and be surrounded by family and friends who love us for who we truly are. Who look up as we join them at last and say simply, "You're home."