In Real Life

Dan in Real Life is one of my favorite films. Note--I don’t have any illusions about it being a great film. The overarching story is predictable, the logistical details unrealistic, and the acting uneven (John Mahoney—a delightful surprise and completely believable as Steve Carrell’s father; Dane Cook--funny at moments, but standup comedy and acting in a remotely serious film demark two fundamentally separate skillsets). It’s not an ambitious film by most measures, in that it doesn’t try to change the world, take on original questions, or diverge too far from traditional values within the cultural context it was created (the fundamental conflict is an average Joe widow choosing between the family he loves and the woman he’s grown infatuated with, who just happens to be sleeping with his brother).

Just the same, I’ve rewatched Dan in Real Life. A lot. I saw it in the movie theater. I bought and rewatched it within the first month it was available on DVD. And thus, since 2007, it has been one of a but a handful of films I’ve watched at least once a year ever since.

Moreover, the film has becoming something of a cultural touchstone for me. When I saw Emily Blunt in the 2012 relaunch movie The Muppets, I recognized her as Dan’s Ruthie “Pigface” Draper. When Heather showed me Private School… For Girls from 1983, with a montage set to Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” I associated it with the awkwardly delightful dance scene from Dan in Real Life. And when I’m flipping pancakes, it’s the exception if I don’t think of Marie’s flapjacks and purposeful burning of just one set.

And so, perhaps it was telling when Heather and I were in our beginning stages of coupledom, compared favorite films, and mutually came upon Dan in Real Life. She lumped it alongside The Family Stone and a handful of others that she categorized as “family movies.” And though I’d never thought to categorize Dan in Real Life so explicitly as such, there’s a little question that that’s the heart of why I love the film. I love the idea of large family reunions and staying under one roof; of competitive crosswording and family talent shows, even if I struggle to imagine any of this really working with my own family.

My own biological family is made up of fewer than a dozen people, half of whom don’t talk to the other half in a mix of factions and people content to be loners. Fewer still would be up for large family bonding activities that stretched beyond a dinner.

But I hope.

My glorification of Dan in Real Life isn’t so unlike a single hopeless romantic adoring Sleepless in Seattle, or a kid playing Pop Warner football feeling drawn to Rudy. We watch for what we not-so-secretly desire and envy. In the same breath, we concede that we probably won’t meet the destined loves of our lives atop of The Empire State Building, make a tackle for the Notre Dame football team, or, yes, have an expansive family that I love expansively (much less that one of us will own an expansive oceanfront house to host the lot of us). But that doesn’t mean that we stop celebrating what we see on the screen, much less stop hoping for these actualized moments of what we have romanticized, in real life.