Sunday, February 7, 2010
Fake life. Real entertainment.
I can't remember the last time I've gotten so much enjoyment from watching a movie I hated so much.
But first a little history.
Dan in Real Life had been on our radar since its first advertising campaign. In the fall of 2007, when it was released, my humorous talking point was that the "button" from the TV ads -- the last line of dialogue they leave you with, which is usually supposed to be funny -- was ridiculous. You may remember it: Steve Carell, playing advice columnist Dan, gets pulled over for at least the second time by a Rhode Island state cop. Making a self-deprecating reference to his previous dalliances with the law, Dan tells the cop, "Put it on my tab." That alone might have been funny, but then the cop says "Excuse me?" And Dan repeats, in a voice like he's doing a character, "Put it on my tab." I thought the superfluous (and in fact counterproductive) repetition of that line was a gas -- it was the surest sign a movie will give you that you are not going to get anything funny here, so might as well stay clear.
And maybe we would have, but the movie came into my wife's possession by accident. As one of the organizers of a non-profit that holds screenwriting workshops a couple times a year, she came home one weekend with a copy of Dan in Real Life in one of the boxes of materials from the workshop. But it wasn't a store-bought copy -- the title was on a sticker from a label maker stuck to the DVD. When we finally inserted it last night, having had it for six months or longer, we discovered that it had been burned from Starz on a "premiere Saturday." It fit the bill for what we were looking for last night -- something unchallenging that might actually turn out to be good, the whole "put it on my tab, put it on my tab" thing notwithstanding. (And even if it was in fact terrible, we'd built up that moment from the ad so much that we just had to see it.)
I don't really know where to start.
Okay, how about the title. If you are going to talk about something being "in real life," you better do your damnedest to make the life you present believable. In fact, the life in Dan in Real Life is some of the fakest life I have ever seen on film. And why don't I stop now to give you the obligatory spoilers warning: Dagnabbit, I will spoil as much of Dan in Real Life as I can in this post.
But first let me say a thing or two about Steve Carell. I love Steve Carell, but he should really stick to TV. Having made a favorable impression in movies the first few times out -- I'm thinking Bruce Almighty, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Little Miss Sunshine and The 40 Year Old Virgin -- he's really started to stink it up in recent years. Evan Almighty was a box office disaster, though Carell was okay in it. I thought Get Smart was absolutely awful -- I mean, not a single redeeming moment -- and that Carell was in fact one of the main reasons it was so bad. Now that I've seen Dan in Real Life, I'm convinced it's a trend, and I'm not looking forward to Date Night, which puts him opposite another great TV star who should stay out of the movies -- Tina Fey, whose Baby Mama still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I don't know if someone other than Carell would have made Dan The Advice Columnist any more tolerable, but in Carell's hands, he's shamelessly self-absorbed and needlessly short-tempered. His character's wife died four years earlier, which is supposed to excuse his every failure to be a good human being. But the film's real problem is, it actually thinks he's a pretty good one, at his core. From Carell's performance, the verdict is quite the opposite. He's capricious with his three children. He's quick to show frustration with his extended family, although they are indeed quite tiresome (more on that in a minute). He's nearly stalkerish in his newfound interest in his brother's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche), though to his credit, he falls for her (in a contrived meet-cute) before he realizes her identity. He not only wallows in sorrow, but it's a spotlight-hogging sorrow -- the kind he puts on display for everyone to see, rather than addressing it quietly and privately. What's worst is, it's hard to imagine this man giving advice to anyone -- which is just as well, because his career doesn't come into play almost at all. That's inexcusable when the job is supposed to be so metaphorically significant to his character's journey.
All of this might be okay if this were a dark independent drama, but it's trying to be frivolous and sunny, starting with the cloying guitar score by singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche and continuing on through the behavior of Dan's family. The movie takes place almost entirely in a summer house in Rhode Island where Dan's family is gathering for a family reunion, and no less than 27 insufferable idiots are involved in every activity that goes on there, like some kind of cross between the Kennedys and the Waltons. Those activities? How about competitive crossword that pits the boys against the girls? How about a synchronized morning jazzercise routine? How about touch football? How about boating? How about charades? How about a family talent show? Yes, each and every one of these things occurs in the film, most of them in one day. In fact, director Peter Hedges is so interested in displaying the participatory enthusiasm of these people, he crams as many of them as he can into each shot. That's right, no matter what time of day or night it is, these people all gather within a ten-foot-radius of each other, sitting on the floor or on the arms of chairs if it will get them into camera range. You know it's a bad movie when you start fixating on the blocking, and I did, more than once. And as cheery as these people are portrayed to be, they're also insidious, as even the matriarch and patriarch (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) get involved in a sing-along involving the uncharitable nickname ("Pig Face") for the girl Dan's about to go out with on a blind date. The first person he wants to date since his wife died, and they sing a "Pig Face" song about her?
And then there's the relationship with his daughters. The middle one, around 14 years old, keeps clashing with him over the guy she's dating. When he makes the kid go home after he crashes the family reunion -- a long weekend, mind you, when she's supposed to be spending time with her family -- she breaks into hysterical tears and calls him a "murderer of love." Then there's the older daughter, whose main conflict with her dad is that he won't let her drive the car. So when he gets his two traffic tickets, that's supposed to be his big hypocrisy that creates a conflict with that daughter.
Other things that bothered me:
1) The dialogue. It was so terrible that I laughed out loud numerous times.
2) As the only single adult present, Dan must sleep in the laundry room, where someone is always running a dryer load full of banging sneakers at bedtime. Who does laundry on a long weekend, anyway?
3) During one particular scene in that laundry room, when his parents start an intervention with him and are naturally joined by a dozen others within 30 seconds, all of whom supposedly have laundry business to transact, one brother advises Dan to "unclog the pipes" every once in awhile. What male ever needed another male to prescribe masturbation to him?
At this point I'm starting to realize I can't explain to you every bad little detail of this movie. However, I can tell you -- the "put it on my tab, put it on my tab" moment was just as "so bad it's good" as I was hoping.
So why was watching Dan in Real Life so entertaining?
Sometimes, as we all know, it's just great to watch something gloriously bad. My wife and I had such a fun time watching this movie, laughing and making jokes. We had both had a bit of a tough week, and even a half-hour before the movie I was just feeling blah. But once it started, I felt a giddy joy overtake me, one that quite obviously had nothing to do with the movie being good.
I'm sure part of that was ending my self-imposed moratorium on watching movies, which had lasted three days since the final 2009 movie I watched before my deadline. I just wanted to watch something. But the fact is, this movie was more than just something -- it was the perfect thing.
On this week's Community, the characters watched a fictitious B-movie called Kickpuncher just to make fun of it. But watching a movie that you know is going to be bad is a bit different than being delightfully surprised by how bad something is. When it's a movie that's supposed to be good, a movie at least some people think is good, it's all the more exciting when it turns out to be absolutely terrible. In a way, it's as amazing an epiphany about the possibility of movies as you get when you see something really great -- except in this case, instead of marveling at the creativity on display, you marvel at the succession of bad decisions that enabled someone to decide this was the best they were going to get.
You see, one of the most dispiriting things about most bad movies these days is that they really aren't that bad -- they are just unforgivably mainstream and uninspired. So we change our definition of what constitutes a "bad movie." The modern "bad movie" is bad because it represents the most obvious final product that a committee of play-it-safe decision-makers could possibly greenlight. Most bad movies, therefore, have a basic competence simply because these people wouldn't let it go out without reaching that minimum level of acceptability. When there are that many people involved, someone's going to see the bad things that really stick out. And fix them enough so that they are at least boring and tolerable.
Well, not with Dan in Real Life. And for that reason alone it demands to be seen, especially if unintentionally funny is as funny to you as it is to me.