Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dan in Real Life: I'm not done yet....

Hey, I achieved another life goal this weekend by finally getting a shout out in Jason Morehead's Opuszine!

I very much like and respect Jason's take on film (we together sat through Geoffrey Wright's MacBeth at the Toronto Film Festival one year and he helped articulate some of the reasons I didn't care for it despite Lady MacBeth giving her "out damn spot" speech in the nude), so I was pleased that he had the same exasperated response to Dan in Real Life that I did.

Now, I made the (possible) mistake of posting a comment at Jason's blog, and the next thing I know all the rant juices are flowing again, and I kept thinking of more and more things about the film I didn't like.

I already mentioned in a footnote the (I can only assume meant to be taken as) playful "teasing" of Mitch early in the film in which a family member says that if he messes up the relationship with Marie they will dump him and keep her.

Since Marie, with Dan's help, is the one who messes up the relationship and the family doesn't dump her (or Dan), I can only assume that this earlier scene was less a call for applying an expected standard of decency in all relationships as a condition of family acceptance and more just an expression of personal preference--they actually just like her more than Mitch.

This, in turn, got me thinking about Marie's character. I've mostly just been ranting about Dan and the film's inability to reconcile what he does with what it wants you to feel about him. I thought, too, as the final credits rolled over the wedding and we see the family beaming at the now happy couple, of Ann Landers's old rubes that when a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy for that position and that if she cheats with you she'll cheat on you. Mitch and Marie aren't married, of course, but there is a corollary here somewhere--Dan and Marie's relationship is (half-)baked in the cauldron of lies and deception, and we are supposed to take it on spec that the resulting pastry that is the ensuing marriage will be one of love, trust, and mutual respect? Forget "love," she doesn't even respect Mitch enough as a person to tell him the truth when she dumps more example of the film's curious motif that lying to people is the highest form of love because the truth sometimes hurts and therefore trying to prevent hurt is the same as loving.

Just as the film changes the foundation of Dan's dilemma from attraction to love as a means of glossing over and trying to justify what the audience might otherwise recognize as some pretty shabby behavior, so too it must try to figure out a way to make Marie a character who can string Mitch along, dump him with no explanation, immediately start dating his brother, and yet not come across as a completely heartless bitch.

The first step in doing so, is, of course, casting the radiant and lovely Juliette Binoche, who is so lovely and has so much good will wrapped up in her actor's persona, that we are just inclined to think of anyone she is playing as a good person. You, know, it's Dan in Real Life's equivalent of the U.S. Government hiring Tom Hanks in The Simpsons Movie to cash in on some of his credibility. There is a weird sort of twisted irony of Binoche in this role. She may be best known for her role in Krzystof Kieslowski's masterpiece, Blue, about a woman trying to emerge from the deadening weight of grief after the death of her husband (and daughter). If I thought the maker's of Dan in Real Life were cleverer, I might almost take this as a tip of the hat to their influences, much like the cameo roles for veteran actors in remakes or Branagh's inclusion of Judi Dench and John Geilgud as Hecuba and Priam in Hamlet.

There's a fine line between honoring and exploiting, though. (The Simpsons Movie is making that very point with the Hanks example.) If this film is thinking about Binoche's association with Blue at all, its invocation of it is more base, akin to the rising tendency of writers and directors to point to shared cultural reference points as shorthand for communicating what they are going for rather than actually trying to invoke a message, idea, or theme in their own work. One can do this through casting (part of what makes Bob Saget so darn funny in Entourage is our immediate association of him with Full House; part of what makes Keith Carradine so right for Kill Bill is the immediate association with Kung Fu), as well as musical cues, or visual "homages" that invoke previous cinematic reference points. When done well, or decently, this can be a way of fleshing out an otherwise minor character and enriching a film. When it becomes a substitute for character development, it becomes a lazy crutch for bad writing.1

The closest thing Marie is given to an explanation of her feelings (other than, hey, I just like this other guy better) comes in an exchange with Dan in which she talks about reading his book. Mitch has apparently stolen some lines or approaches from Dan's advice column--nuggets like "I'll forgive you your past if you forgive me mine"--and in a foolish act of unforgivable deception has tried to apply advice from a relationship advice column to his relationship. Marie complains that all Mitch's "best lines" are, in fact, Dan's and that she didn't realize in falling in love with Mitch (who applied the advice) she was actually falling in love with Dan (who gave the advice).

This exchange, like the aforementioned shower scene screams out for a deconstructive reading, in part because (like many scenes or works that cry out for deconstruction) it makes no sense if taken at face value. Here is a woman who, we are supposed to believe, is too embarrassed to be found talking to a guy in a bathroom while she washes her face and so she will subject herself to the greater embarrassment of stripping and getting in the shower with him. Here is a woman who apparently detests lies and dishonesty so much that she is outraged that a boyfriend will apply advice from a relationship column without providing a verbal, in-text MLA citation about where it came from. Yet the same woman who is outraged not at being lied to but not being told the whole truth will turn around and refuse to be honest with him about her own actions. This makes about as much sense to me as a teacher failing a student for plagiarism on the grounds that he argued in an essay that people ought to love their neighbors as themselves without thinking to mention that someone else said it first but then turns around and plagiarizes large parts of the student's essay for her own dissertation.

Marie's rationalization here (it has to be a rationalization, she can't be serious) would seem to imply, if taken seriously, that words are a greater sign of love than actions. Perhaps if the film had cast Gwyneth Paltrow instead of Binoche, we might instinctively think of Shakespeare in Love and suspect that Marie is a poetic, Romantic sort of the type who has a highly idealized view of love and falls in love with the man because he is the source of the words, but then that would work better if Dan were a poet rather than an advice columnist and if it were the words themselves, rather than the sentiment behind them, that were beautiful. As it is now, I kept flashing forward to a moment thirty years in the future after Marie has enjoyed a few decades of Dan's sincere love and devotion, where she is wandering through another, different book store and stumbles across a Bible that has fallen open to Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

In my mind, I see Marie immediately and tearfully filing for divorce. "All those years," she sobs, "I thought I was falling in love with you...only to find out that I'm really in love with St. Paul."

1One could argue, I suppose, that Binoche's presences is meant to evoke not Blue but The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and were I to find out that the original choice to play Dan was not Steve Carrel but Daniel Day-Lewis, I would have to rethink my contention that we are meant to take the Dan-Marie relationship as true love and not merely the desperate attempts of two lonely and co-dependent people feeding their addiction to love and lust as a narcotic used to dull their existential pain.

1 comment:

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

The more I think about it the more I like (rather than just entertain) the deconstructive notion that the film is really just about a woman who sees a better catch and decides to seduce him from the get go.

Dan has a scene in the middle of the movie in which he accuses Marie of openly and deliberately coming on to him. We are meant to take this as projection, I think, but consider:

--She is the one who approaches him at the book store and flirts.
--She gives him her number afterwards.
--She leads the jazzercise and does the stretching when she knows he is watching.
--She is the one who literally throws him in the shower. Perhaps she is not too dense to ask the daughter to leave; perhaps she wants an excuse to arouse his attention when more indirect flirting has failed.
--Dan's daughters notice and mention that there is an obvious attraction.
--She confesses that she loves him (in the scene about his book).
--When she leaves and Dan doesn't come after him (as she hoped he would?) she almost immediately calls him.

The only thing I'm really on the fence about in this deconstruction is whether she knew who he was in the bookstore. Perhaps in talking to Mitch or being introduced to his family she had heard about Dan or seen his picture. Perhaps she went to the family vacation with a guy she already knew was a loser in the hopes of meeting his more attractive and appealing brother. (What the heck is she doing hanging around the bookstore alone anyway? Could it be that she finds the prospect of going to Mitch's house not merely nerve-wracking but unappealing?)

Other possible alternate castings: Julie Delpy, which might have evoked not Blue but White (another film about a female trying to rouse a hapless (in more ways than one) guy into being able to express his love. If not that, Glenn Close might have evoked enough of Fatal Attraction to at least provide a subconscious subtext for Dan's reluctance to pursue the relationship. (Hmmm....I can hear Marie in the bowling alley right now..."I won't be ignored, Dan!")