I confess that I’m not a French movie buff. I’ve never seen La Veuve de Saint-Pierre or Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge. I never bothered with The English Patient, for that matter, or Chocolat. For all I know, Juliette Binoche was brilliant in each of these films. Asking her to play opposite Steve Carell and Dane Cook, however, is like casting Laurence Olivier in Three Amigos. That’s not fair to Sir Laurence or Three Amigos, but you get my point. Yet forcing Binoche’s decidedly square peg into a round hole is exactly what the Casting Director of Dan in Real Life chose to inflict on the script, destroying what promised otherwise to be a memorable film.
Steve Carell proves here, as he did in Little Miss Sunshine, that his talent stretches far beyond his awkward characters in Anchorman and television’s The Office. He plays the title character in this film, who is struggling to raise three daughters following the death of his wife. The temptation to be maudlin is palpable, but Carell plays his role with gentle humor and a quiet, fumbling desperation that neither denies nor cheapens the tragedy of his circumstances.
Through a fairly contrived happenstance Dan meets Marie (Binoche), who just happens to be the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). Sparks, of course, fly, insofar as Carell is a spinning flywheel and Binoche is an inert piece of stone that has memorized some lines. They are soon trapped in a cabin with Dan’s parents and other relatives, where scene after scene is unveiled to show us both the depth of Dan’s loneliness and his deepening entanglement with Marie.
The problem is that Binoche has all the comedic appeal of a dead fish. I take that back, because when there is a dead fish on stage at least we have the pleasure of anticipating that someone will get slapped upside the head with it. After only a handful of scenes with Binoche we get the sinking feeling, however, that this dead fish is only going to smell up the place. Thus Carell has to work overtime, convincing us not only that his character has inextricably fallen for this dull, uncomfortable woman, but further, that she has fallen for him.
The ending is predictable, but that would have been forgivable had we wanted the two of them to wind up together. I found myself hoping against experience, however, that Dan would stop pining after this French fish and take the bait tossed out for him by his parents, in the form of the delicious Emily Blunt.
But this is Hollywood, and the formula dictates that the leading man always gets his girl, even if said girl is powerful proof that the Casting Director either owes someone money or has a significant crack habit. I might have settled on incompetence, except for the fact that the other supporting actors, including Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney as Dan’s parents, and Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, and Marlene Lawston as his daughters, are engaging throughout. Which renders Binoche’s inclusion all the more baffling, and disappointing. Hence my Casting-Director-owes-the-French-Mafia-a-favor theory.
With all that said, there’s a way to make this film worth the $1 at a McDonald’s Redbox. What you need to do, every time you see Binoche, is imagine she’s Catherine Keener. If that’s too 40 Year-Old Virgin for you, try Parker Posey. Heck, Parker Stevenson would have been more believable. What I’m saying is that you’ll need to do some work to enjoy the film. That’s why I can only give it three nuggets, with no sauce. But if the wonders of digitization ever allow us to substitute other actors into our films, I’m subbing in Amy Adams and giving this all but one bite of a six-nugget meal, including a refill on the Dr. Pepper.
And now I’m thinking — if you could substitute actors into films, who would you replace with whom, and why?