Even middle-aged guys deserve to find true love, right? What’s refreshing about the newly-released “Dan In Real Life” and the emerging classic “About A Boy” is that they both are written for stars who don’t mind showing us characters whose tires have been kicked a few times. These two well-written, smart movies make the topic seem fresh by keeping it real. The formula is simple: take enormously likable screen stars — Hugh Grant and Steve Carell — and let them fall, under unlikely circumstances, for women who prove to be just what they need at the moment in their lives when they are ready for change. Complicate with a healthy dose of parenthood. Both movies are related creatively by screenwriter Peter Hedges who co-wrote “About A Boy” and did the same duty on “Dan In Real Life” but added a visit to the director’s chair for the latest effort.
Dan Burns, played by Steve Carell, has a dead ex-wife, thus freeing him to look for new love while saddled with the awesome parenting responsibilities of raising three daughters (two teenagers and a pre-teen). As “Dan In Real Life” begins, we find Dan taking them to his parent’s home in Rhode Island for a massive family reunion. Dan’s a classic case of someone who can dish out advice but clearly needs to take some: he’s a newspaper advice columnist and he hasn’t recovered from losing his wife four years ago. Writer/director Hedges has described what he does as reality-based comedy and remains determined “not to take shortcuts with people.” While he handles his material this way, he’s not above the comic nightmare set-up. In this case, Dan runs into the woman of his dreams Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a local bookstore. She’s beautiful, funny and bright and the smitten Dan makes the big committment to get her phone number. Energized and thrilled at feeling feelings he hasn’t felt in years, he gets sent reeling when he returns to his parent’s home where his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook) introduces Marie as his new girlfriend. Oops. Complications ensue but they are always grounded in treating this situation as honestly as possible. Dan takes his disappointment out on his young, affable, attractive (but not so bright) brother. Mitch goes through girlfriends every few months and Dan believes Marie deserves someone more mature. Himself.
The Defending Champion
Here’s a comedic meet-cute for you. A 38-year-old who’s really just an overgrown adolescent decides a great way to meet women who won’t expect a commitment from him is to join a single parents support group. And who better to play this man-child Will than Hugh Grant who is always charming but probably even more charming than usual in this role? “About A Boy” was adapted by Hedges from the excellent novel by Nick Hornby (who also wrote “High Fidelity” and saw it become a great film, too) and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz. In their film, Grant’s been allowed to remain frozen in emotional time as a result of getting royalty checks from the 1958 Christmas hit song his late father wrote called “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” The film’s only real flaw may be that it expects us to feel a twinge of sadness for Grant’s predicament but I’m betting everyone reading this wishes their Old Man had written a gift that keeps on giving. Anyway, Will’s hobby is dating beautiful women who he drops as soon as things get… emotional. To pass in the support group, he invents a fictitious son and a story about how his ‘wife’ abandoned them, leaving him a single dad. Through a chain of events, he meet young Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) who is being raised by his unstable single mother. Will convinces Marcus to pose as his son when he meets Rachel (Rachel Weisz) who he is desperate to hook up with. The heart of the movie really doesn’t kick in until this point because Will and Marcus form an unlikely relationship. Marcus desperately needs a male figure in his life, but the commitment-phobic Will seems an unlikely candidate. And, as you might expect, complications ensue here, too. Part of them involve a hysterically funny rendition of “Killing Me Softly.” No, we won’t spoil that surprise if you haven’t seen it. By making the commitment to Marcus, though, Will allows himself to make an emotional commitment to Rachel.
The writing in both “About A Boy” and “Dan In Real Life” is first rate and so is the direction. It’s deft. And you can look that up in the dictionary if you want to. This is a draw.
A surprise in both, actually, is how perfect the music is. It’s singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche for “Dan In Real Life” and Badly Drawn Boy for “About A Boy” and both soundtracks manage to support and enhance the mood of their films. Really great. Another draw.
As for the leading men of the two films, great as Hugh Grant is playing Will, the revelation is that Steve Carell is a contemporary comedy giant now for good reason. Grant has to overcome his good looks and charm to gain our sympathy (and he does in “About A Boy”) but Carell starts by underplaying, not going for the comedy bit, and ends up being just damn terrific. He’s capable of missing the mark, as he did this year in “Evan Almighty,” but here he hits the sweet spot.
In fact, all of the characters in both films, major and minor, are believable complex people. There’s simply not a stereotype in the whole group. Both characters behave in unexpected but convincing ways to the developing situation. Both films also steadfastly refuse to treat the kids in them with any degree of condescension. No treacle or cliche in either. Maybe, just maybe, the edge here goes to “About A Boy.”
In an entertainment environment where un-funny bottom dweller comedies can be foisted on audiences expected to pay for the experience, both of these Smackdown films are a cut above. Bright, witty and intelligent, both “About A Boy” and “Dan In Real Life” resonate with truth and provide laughs that are about the human condition and not over-the-top situations that could never occur in real life. So, it’s close here, and even though the challenger is well-worth viewing, the mid-life romantic comedy you have to see is “About A Boy.”