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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dan in "real" life

Last Friday I went and saw “Dan in Real Life”, a romantic comedy about people, family and about retaining the ability to be surprised by life. Basically, whilst on holiday with his whole family, Dan, a man struggling with the task of raising his three daughters after the death of his wife, meets a woman in a bookshop and there is an instant connection. The problem is that the woman is going out with Dan's brother and thus Dan is forced to spend the family holiday hiding his attraction from his brother, and from his family. Sounds pretty simplistic right? To save me explaining the plot further, go and see the trailer, here. Although not really conclusive, you'll get an idea of the style of the film. The reviews of the film range widely from "As resolutely plastic and formulaic as most half-hour network comedy pilots" and "The movie is called Dan in Real Life, but it’s a stretch worthy of Reed Richards to believe that anything in this tepid plate of idiocy would actually happen in real life" all the way to "If what you want is a star-driven sophisticated romantic comedy that is successfully aimed at actual adults, the wait can seem like forever. Until now."
Granted, the film is fairly basic. But I think it is saved by some really sensitive performances and some beautifully sincere and genuine human moments. While the plot may be at times unbelievable, the human reactions are not.

Early in the film, the title character (Steve Carell), at a bookstore, meets the woman he will fall in love with (Juliette Binoche). Mistaking him for an employee, she tries to describe the kind of book she’s looking for. “I want something funny,” she says. “But not laugh-out-loud funny. And definitely not making-fun-of-people funny. I want something human funny.” Unable to really explain what she wants, she capitulates: I want to feel something... I want to be engaged. It does not take long to recognize this as a declaration of the film’s own intentions.
The truth is, this film is simplistic, but if it were not, would it be as popular? People have their own lives to be depressed by. They don't need to go and see someone else who's life is a mess. And after all, the great things about films is they enable us to be unrealistic. It's liberating. It's gratifying.

But why do we gravitate towards entertainment that presents a simplified version of our lives? Why do we enjoy that feeling of, "yes, that's what I feel but I haven't been able to articulate it up till now!" so much.
Why, when there is amazingly genuine intense and emotionally observant music, do we all smile when Bernard Fanning says "I just want to wish you well" in a song with three chords or the Beatles say, "I just want to hold your hand"? Why, when there is a film like Adaptation, does Love Actually take out the box office? Is it that our own lives give us so much grey, that all we want to do is grab onto the black and white and hope to god no one asks us to return it at the door? It is this that films like Dan in Real Life give us. They tender to our intrinsic desire to want to bathe in nostalgia. They allow us to indulge in all those things we wished could be true for own lives but that we seem not able to grasp hold of.

Just like the girl in the book shop, I think some of us are all yearning to be engaged, yearning for someone to make us feel... something. Whatever that something is...

As far as I'm concerned I know there are times when I want to turn off the grey, when I want to forget about the "what am I going to do?"s, the "how will I ever be happy?"s. I know there are times when I just want to turn up the music, forget that the words are meaningless, and jump up and down, and smile.

It doesn't help me make any sense of anything. But it feels good.



Anonymous said...

You should! You should turn the music, and start jumping up and down.

You know , those kind of movies present love and that’s the thing that drives us every day. Therefore, we go see those movies because yes, at the present moment it feels good , because you throw yourself into the screen and see yourself going toward the happy ending. And that’s road we are all looking for. But no, I don’t think we wish to throw out the grey of our lives, I think we evetually want it to Turn into black or white.
I think the best medicine for the bath to change from nostalgia into happiness, is time and hope.

Go jump up and down and smile, it feels good!

James Pender said...

Thanks for your comments anonymous! (ana?)

Yep, I agree that sometimes we just need to give ourselves a break from the worrying and enjoy the here and now.

Andrew said...

not completely on the topic of love per se, but tenuously derivative... in answer to the questions of "what am i going to do" or "how will i ever be happy"? i was chatting to tahli on the phone the other day and she's recently given birth to a beautiful little girl winnie. she was saying that she thinks its amazing that she has this little bundle in front of her and a new friend to play with. but resisting to hit the cliches of "this is the best thing to have ever happened in my life" was a little more circumspect about the whole thing. although not planned for she is completely love and adore. i think its cool to sometimes play your cards the way you want and a bit against the grain. who says you need to feel a certain way or be a certain thing?

i think that sometimes these things just happen for a reason and you ride the wave. juliette binoche's quote of "i want to feel something... i want to be engaged", do we always feel the need to grasp further out for things that seem just out of reach? is it ok to be ambivalent and disengaged once and a while? i love to jump up and down to the music and smile.

not quite sure if this is a product of our generation having too many options that we just can't decide on one thing and hence feel this disconnection towards what life has to offer, heck i don't know... but at least this movie offers us something concrete and erudite... ready for it... "everybody poops" - amen