One of life's great ironies is that the only people who know everything about parenting are those without children. Throw a couple of offspring into the mix, and the theories go out the window. At least, that's the experience of newspaper columnist Dan Burns, who writes a daily piece on practical parenting. Apparently it's good, because he's being considered for syndication. Yet raising three daughters on his own (two teenagers and one preteen) in the wake of his wife's death is making Dan question his own wisdom as a subject-matter expert.
Seventeen-year-old Jane is itching to put her new driver's permit into practice, but dad is nervous and overprotective. Fourteen-year-old Cara has a bent for the dramatic and regularly hurls spectacular insults at her father. And 10-year-old Lilly needs the attention she lost with the passing of her mother four years previously. Dad tries to be an attentive stand-in, but it's just not the same.
Amid that turmoil, Dan packs up the girls and heads to the Rhode Island shore, where his extended family gathers each fall to help Nana and Poppy Burns close up their beach house for the winter. The scene at the vacation home is one of comforting chaos: Innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins collaborate on everything from stowing away canoes to participating in a family talent show to scarfing down pancake breakfasts. Still, the tension that pervades Dan's life doesn't disappear just because he's left the big city behind.
Add one more wrinkle: Almost as soon as it occurs to him that he might be ready for a new love to warm his heart, Marie wanders into Dan's life. He meets her in a quaint bookstore. They chat awhile and plan to reconnect. But of course it can't be that easy. Hours later, Marie shows up at the reunion on the arm of Dan's brother Mitch.
What follows is a comedy of faux pas and tender epiphanies.
The family relationships portrayed in Dan in Real Life are wonderful. Nana and Poppy have created an atmosphere where children and grandchildren alike can trust each other, communicate honestly and have fun together. Marriages are long lasting and valued. (Poppy reiterates that even if Dan never marries again now that his wife has died, he should still count himself blessed to have had such a special relationship.) Adult siblings respect each other. In fact, Mitch practically reveres Dan, even after big bro starts to make things awkward for everyone. Inappropriate behavior has consequences (even for adults), such as being forced to do the dishes alone. Intentionality—setting aside time for each other and planning to do things together—is shown to be of utmost importance.
Though he's a bit emotionally overwrought, Dan is a good dad. He's works hard to fill the roles of both dad and mom, and we see him folding laundry and making peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches to take on the road.
While his methods are a bit over the top, Dan's motivations for wanting Cara to wait a few years before dating are well meant. When he expresses concern to his father that his girls can't stand him, Poppy says, "That just means you're doing something right." Later he confesses to his mom that he has hurt his girls. Her advice? "Go unhurt them." Accordingly, Dan apologizes for letting his priorities get out of order.
Cara accuses her dad of being a monk.
Twice, Dan stops Cara from kissing her crush, Marty. Cara reassures her dad, "When it comes to sex, Marty has sworn that he wants to wait." Dad's not convinced, however, in a "Yeah, right, I was 14 once" kind of way. Marie and Mitch, who met at a gym, are shown doing pairs stretching that is somewhat suggestive in its sensuality. During a backyard football game, Marie falls on top of Dan and lingers for a moment. The two also unintentionally end up in the shower together. He's clothed, but she's not. (Audiences glimpse her back and part of her breast from the side.) Both are embarrassed, and Dan covers his face with a washcloth, then climbs out onto the roof to extricate himself from the situation.
Cara asks Marie, "When does a boyfriend become a lover?" (Mostly, she wants to embarrass her dad with the question.) One of Dan's siblings refers to Nana and Poppy's "separate bedrooms until you're married" rule. Another thinks the rule is "kind of high school," but Dan says he agrees with it. One of Dan's brothers is concerned that, as a widower, Dan is "way backed up" and needs to give himself some "self love" to relieve sexual tension. Likewise, other subtle innuendo is used (appetites, corks, etc.) to hint at sexual activity.
Cara wears a very short skirt over leggings. Marie and another eligible woman named Ruthie wear low-cut dresses that expose some cleavage. Men watch women dancing from behind. A few songs on the soundtrack have sensual (though not explicitly sexual) lyrics.
Dan falls from a second-story porch roof. When Mitch discovers that Dan is in love with Marie, he punches his older brother in the face. Dan accidentally backs into a police car. (This, along with two speeding tickets, gives Dan reason to eat humble pie in front of daughter Jane, who has been unsuccessfully trying to convince him she's a responsible driver.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dan's family sets him up with Ruthie, telling him that she's going to pick him up for drinks. Dan, Ruthie, Mitch and Marie double date at a bar.
Dan in Real Life won't win any awards for a plot that's layered or subtle. The story is pretty straightforward. And because it winds down after just 95 minutes, it has some themes that could stand to be developed more carefully. But that's OK. The appeal of this sweet story is in its humanness. You have to laugh at what's happening onscreen. And not like audiences laughed at Meet the Parents—out of sheer embarrassment for the hero. With Dan, you laugh because you've been there. Or you know somebody who has.
Coming from a large extended family like the Burns clan, I thoroughly appreciated the warm, busy, loud, crowded beach house that becomes the backdrop for this love story. Kids are passed from grandma to grandpa, from aunt to uncle. Nieces and nephews feel comfortable saying things to other adults that they might not say to their parents. A spontaneous game of pickup football is always a possibility. Mealtimes include a kids' table and an adult table. The stream of dirty dishes to be washed is unending. If director Peter Hedges didn't come from a family like this, he's surely spent some time with one, because he nails the intrigues and oddities of this extended family. It's fun to watch, and all the more if you've personally experienced that family dynamic.
On top of that, I can't remember the last romantic comedy I saw in which the leading couple didn't take each other out for a sexual test drive before the credits rolled. Which isn't to say that Dan is squeaky clean on that front—especially his impromptu encounter with Marie in the shower. But as PG-13 flicks go, it doesn't push the content envelope nearly as far as many do these days. (Ben Stiller, are you reading this?)
The film's missteps are worth keeping in mind, but they're not enough to cancel out the Real lessons Dan and his girls live and learn in the context of their large, loving and loyal family.