Dan in Real Life is one of those Three's Company/sitcom style comedies in which people get themselves into bigger and bigger complications trying to cover up something that wouldn't be half the problem their secrecy was if they simply were honest and rational for any thirty second segment of the film.
It is the type of film in which a woman will strip and get into a shower where she knows a guy is hiding because she is too embarrassed to admit he was in the bathroom talking to her while she was washing her face and too stupid to tell the person who asks to talk to her to wait for her in the other room and she'll be out in a few minutes.
It is the type of film in which characters spend days of screen time (what seems like years of our life time) lying to or avoiding honest conversations with people they love so much because they love them so much and are afraid the truth might hurt them a little bit. One of my pet peeves is movies that tell us something about characters but can't back it up by showing us what we are supposed to take the movie's word about. You know, how, say, Finding Forrester will tell us over and over that Forrester is a great writer but never show us anything he's written, or how The Saint will tell us Elizabeth Shue is a supergenenius but never show the character doing an intelligent thing.
Dan in Real Life tells us over and over again that Dan's extended family is loving and has a great relationship, but it seems to think that means they have competitive crosswords on family game night and not that they ever make particular efforts to treat others as they would be treated themselves or to try to provide for them a supporting and loving environment.
It is the type of movie where kids who are bratty the whole movie (and brattiest when dad is actually acting the most responsible as a parent) suddenly act supportive when their dad actually does something irresponsible and mean. Why do they do this? Because these characters exist in a world in which they know they are not real but are in fact characters in a movie...a movie which is 95% over and the plot needs for them to undergo a change of heart (and character) in order to have a happy ending that the writers don't know how to logically get to.
I think the part of Dan in Real Life I liked the least was Dan's resolution with his brother who first hits Dan and then interrupts Dan's attempts at apology to rush out the door and get in a car with a hotter, younger chick who was trying to pick up Dan at a bar earlier in the film. What, exactly, is the point of the scene? Turnabout is fair play? The brother landed on his feet or wasn't really that into the girl to begin with? No reading of this scene is consistent with what the character and the film has told us is true to that point about the brother's feelings for his girlfriend,1 but, I'm hard pressed to see how any scene that tried to honestly deal with the fallout of the discovery could be resolved in 30 seconds or less so that we can get on with the happy ending.
Towards the end of the film Dan and Marie meet furtively in a bowling alley. The woman working there smiles knowingly as she watches them interact and, without being asked, turns on the romantic strobe lights. The function of this scene appears to be to have the stranger validate what the movie wants us to believe but has been unable to credibly show us--these two are obviously in love. It is so obvious anyone, even a complete stranger, could see it. The only ones who can't see it are, apparently, any adult who is living in the same house with them. The woman's recognition is a prefiguring of Dan's own recognition ("I love her"), and it is irksome how problems and conflicts are not resolved in light of that fact but dissolve in the face of it.
Like many rant-worthy things, there may be a seed of truth here, a seed that hints at a better movie that might have been. If the film were about two people gradually realizing (or even trying to hide the fact) that they are in love only to come to admit it and sadly (or defiantly, who know?) admit that love is selfish sometimes and this fact trumps whatever reasons they might give to or wrongs they might perpetrate on other people, it might have been a mature, intelligent, "real" movie.
The problem, though, is that Dan in Real Life is not about two people who spend several days trying to hide the fact that they are in love. It is a film about two people who spend several days trying to hide the fact that they just met. Furtiveness, as any good Medievalist reader might tell you, is a wonderful aphrodisiac. So you either buy the fact that Dan and Marie instantly fall in love at the book store and spend days valiantly trying to fight against that realization only to realize its no use, or you are confronted with the interpretation that they somehow fall in love through the glimpses they get of one another while pretending to not know each other. In the film's most honest moment, Dan (after watching Marie lead family jazzercise) pretty much admits that what is painful to be around her is that he finds her attractive and knows he can't pursue that attraction not that he "loves" her and knows she is dating someone else. Yet to follow that line of thought when she does become available can't be construed as something other than selfish (or at least indifferent to his brother's feelings) so his feelings have to be recast as love because claiming (him to himself and the movie to us) that his actions are motivated by love is the only way to make them justifiable (much less noble).
Heck, even that sort of self-deception might be interesting if the film was honest about it being (or at least mixed with) self-deception. If it admitted or invited you to consider the fact that these characters might be unhealthy (or have unhealthy habits) that have led to periods of regular or prolonged self- (and other-) delusion, then the "heart wants what the heart wants" conclusion might even be poignant as at least it would come on the heels of some self-knowledge or surrender of a constructed but artificial self-conception. (Yeah, can you tell I've been watching Rohmer's Six Moral Tales all last month?)
Dan in Real Life has no such pretensions. Dan gets the girl and gets to keep his conception of himself as a sacrificially giving father (he's willing, at the end, to give up the love that justifies all if that's what they want and they have to practically shove him out the door) and a supporting, loving brother. Bonhoeffer once famously railed against "cheap grace"--pale imitations of a holy and beautiful thing masquerading as the real deal--by pointing out that grace costs something. Dan in Real Life is kind of about "cheap love"--love not proven through putting others first or coming with a cost, but love used as the vaguest of all possible words, love as a label not to be earned but invoked, love not as a reason but as an excuse.
1Nor, really, is the family's response to Dan's revelation consistent with the family dynamics hinted at when the family tells the brother, earlier in the film, that if he messes up the relationship with Marie they will keep her and dump him. Or maybe it is...here, again, the film could be hinting at a truer, realer, film that wants to come out, one in which responses are based not on what people actually do but on assigned roles in the family mythology. Dan is the good brother and Mitch is the f--- up, because, well, because it's always been that way and to let the facts get in the way of a good stereotyping is to question the truthfulness and reality of the family mythology on which the priviliged positions of respect and deference of its members rest.