One of those Hollywood development types once told me that you had to write screenplays by dreaming up the trailer first and then crafting your script around that. The ad you were supposed to dream up, of course, had to have big "trailer moments." Things like character, plot, structure—all those elements seemed secondary to conceiving scenes primarily to satiate studio marketing departments.
The trailer for Peter Hedges's Dan in Real Life doesn't really have a lot of big "trailer moments." Steve Carell falls off a roof, but that overused gag is about all there is. Perhaps that's why I cringed every time I saw the trailer for Dan, which made the movie look like an overly familiar, boring, unfunny, treacly, family melodrama about a widower with three girls spending a weekend with his wacky family and including a tacked on love-triangle subplot. And after Carell's Evan Almighty tortured me almost to death, I didn't expect much from this new movie.
Well, guess what? Dan in Real Life doesn't have big "trailer moments" because its characters are real instead of larger-than-life and instead of forcibly "quirky"; it's content to let studying people be the plot; and the humor is smart, subtle, and builds from one bit to another.
It's easy to complain that the movie does seem a bit rushed (it clocks in at 95 minutes), especially at its climax, but it has so much going for it. Carell is restrained yet hilarious; the script (co-written by Hedges and Pierce Gardner) and the directing are heartfelt, clever, and genuine (there's no tear-filled grieving widow monologue!); the soundtrack is jam-packed with songs by the terrific Sondre Lerche; and someone finally figured out what to do with Dane Cook—so seemingly uncharismatic in his leading roles, he's actually rather charming and honest here as Dan's younger brother.
I want to emphasize that this movie is laugh-out-loud funny as well. After Dan tears his lovesick daughter away from the object of her teenage infatuation, she screams, "You are a murderer of love!" I nearly spit out my popcorn.
Instead of the trailer (ha!), I give you an actual scene from the movie. Then, you get Sondre Lerche performing a song from Dan in Real Life live on the David Letterman show: