A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: The 40 Year Old Virgin became a father of three. Dan in Real Life, which releases on Blu-ray Disc Tuesday, March 11, is a pleasantly surprising experience for three reasons. First, seeing Steve Carrell in a complex role after watching him wax his chest in The 40 Year Old Virgin is an eye-opener, to say the least. Who knew he had it in him? Second, watching a story unfold about a single father isn’t something one sees everyday on the big (or in this case, small) screen, so it’s got novelty on its side. And third, for a family-friendly movie, the film’s attention to its Blu-ray multimedia is remarkable.
Dan in Real Life tells the story of a widower who balances writing a soon-to-be-syndicated column about parenting with the rigors of raising three daughters on his own following the death of his wife. The plot isn’t anything close to Steel Magnolias, so don’t go searching for the Kleenex, but it deftly uses humor to tackle serious parenting issues, extended-family issues and the confusion a middle-aged man experiences as he looks once again for affection. Oh, and let’s not forget that he falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend along the way. Yeah, Dan in Real Life is a real tear jerker.
In all seriousness, the film is a distinct departure from Carrell’s work in “The Office” TV show or The 40 Year Old Virgin, if for no other reason than the depth of Carrell’s character in Dan in Real Life. The result is a surprisingly compelling tale laced (of course) with a healthy dose of humor. Yet where The 40 Year Old Virgin relied heavily on pretty base humor, Dan in Real Life relies on common familial experiences that just so happen to be funny, and it only occasionally sprinkles “potty humor” into the plot. As a result, the cast delivers not only a more mainstream performance but a believable one that explores the uncommon needs, desires and responsibilities of a single man.
For all the single men watching it, however, Dan in Real Life also pays close attention to the multimedia aspects for its release on Blu-ray, a pleasant surprise for what could arguably be billed as a family friendly film. And as we know, “family friendly,” “high definition” and “high fidelity” don’t always appear in the same sentence. In terms of the Blu-ray video presentation, the film’s 1080p AVC-encoded video has remarkable visual fidelity, and its lack of grain is nothing short of incredible, considering the range of light levels in half of the scenes in the film. Signs of black crush never appear, and the high contrast of about one-third of the scenes never has any adverse effect on the clarity or lack of grain. Likewise, the 24-bit uncompressed audio has great clarity and volume balance, although there’s nothing in the audio track or surround-sound channels that will knock audiophiles” socks off. That shouldn’t be a surprise, though; family friendly films aren’t exactly audio showcase pieces.
Dan in Real Life includes five bonus features, each of varying lengths, purposes and quality. The first is the requisite Audio Commentary track with director Peter Hedges, an informative narrative track that, while perfectly functional, ultimately ends up being one too many instances of Peter Hedges in the film. I say that because Just Like Family: The Making of Dan in Real Life (15:03, 1080p) spends no less than five minutes — fully one-third of its entire length — praising, stroking and fluffing darn near everything about the director. In what other “making of” feature have you heard how the director’s childhood upbringing had an impact on a film or lead character? How many times have you heard cast and crew say good things about the director, only to have those in-passing comments blown up into what amounts to A/V Valentine’s Day cards? To be fair, the feature does provide interesting insight into the filming schedule and how the crew scouted the house in which the movie takes place, but the feature spends far too much time talking about the director himself.
Fortunately, Handmade Music: Creating the Score (9:49, 1080p) makes up a bit for these shortcomings, although the interest doesn’t necessarily come from the movie insight, but in its virtual profile of musician Sondre Lerche. Director Hedges and Lerche agreed that most Hollywood films are “over scored,” meaning they use music excessively and to force emotion from viewers. As a result, Lerche’s approach to Dan in Real Life was to remain subtle, organic and never overpowering, a trilogy of goals he meets with aplomb in this film. Learning more about this man as a musician actually inspired this reviewer to watch the movie a second time simply to see (listen?) his work in action, and this feature alone will undoubtedly help him land some more well-deserved scoring gigs.
Meanwhile, the Deleted Scenes (19:45) are comprised of 11 different scenes, some deleted with good reason (to delay certain plot revelations for later in the film), and some deleted presumably just for the sake of time — because they’re absolutely hilarious. It’s not often to find deleted scenes that must be watched, but several parts of this bonus footage are definite must-watch sequences. Most viewers will be able to pass on the Outtakes (3:24), though; they’re mostly comprised of sequences were the actors are laughing, and the few instances where lines are mixed up aren’t really all that funny.
That’s probably the most ironic part of Dan in Real Life, though: unlike most Steve Carrell experiences, this one doesn’t have to be funny to be compelling. Dan in Real Life tells a great story, and although the “I fell in love with my brother’s girlfriend” shtick could potentially be a bit “out there,” the way it’s presented never really falls out of the realm of possibility. What’s more, the complexity and sometimes-conflicting motivations of Carrell’s character show that the actor should branch out more often, because when he did so in Dan in Real Life, the result is a great movie that by all accounts provides great entertainment value and a great experience on Blu-ray.
– Jonas Allen