Last night I watched the movie Dan in Real Life. Dan (Steve Carrell) is a widower with three daughters who writes an advice column (I think). They head off to his parents’ house on the coast of Rhode Island for a family reunion. Dan drives into town to buy a newspaper when he is quite taken by a woman he meets at the bookstore. The spend a couple of hours in conversation and exchange phone numbers. He drives back to his parents’ house, wherein he is introduced to his brother’s girlfriend Marie . . . the woman from the bookstore.
What to do . . .
This very question drives the dramatic tension of the movie, and quite successfully so. Dan’s torment is aggravated by the kind of family he has: a large (four brother’s and sisters, plus their spouses and offspring), hyperkinetic (The adults play football in the yard! Just like the Kennedys! ), bunch that feels entirely comfortable nosing into each other’s lives. This environment reminds the naturally reticent Dan how unbearably alone he is, and the contrast illustrates that aloneness for the audience.
Dan works through his dilemma between loyalty and desire in a very human way. Not to say a perfect way, but then very few of us would, and I don’t object to movies that show people muddling through life as best they can.
What I do object to is when a movie falls prey to the desire to make a “statement”. In this case, the statement is conveyed by alleging a parallel between Dan’s feelings for Marie and his 14 (maybe 15; the movie doesn’t say specifically) year old daughter’s feelings for her boyfriend Pedro. (He’s Hispanic! How progressive!) Now, as a father with daughters myself, I am obviously in sympathy with Dan’s opinion that 14 is too young for a girl to be “dating”, especially in its modern secular context, and especially when the girl in question displays this level of emotional self-possession:
I mean, is this the kind of behavior I have to look forward to?
It seems not to occur to the filmmakers, as it does not appear to occur to Marie (from her comments to Dan) how this very scene illustrates the difference between the two situations. Dan, whatever his mistakes, at least has the presumptive maturity to recognize the tradeoffs involved and the responsibility to deal with the consequences of his actions. His daughter, in contrast, knows only her own momentary passion. Her insistence that she is in love reminds me of the account of a man who needs no introduction:
[P]recisely what is meant by the assertion that the young woman was “madly in love?” Love may be the ultimate weasel term, so for purposes of clarification, let me oppose to the author’s anecdote a short one of my own.
I had occasion recently to make some visits to a nursing home. Most of the residents never receive visitors; they just sit, bound to wheelchairs, waiting for death. Such care as they get is provided by low-wage workers speaking Swahili, Amharic, and a Babel of other tongues. Heaven knows where their children or grandchildren are. But a few cases, I noticed, are different. A man who once navigated bombers past Hitler’s Luftwaffe was there, unable to feed himself. Every day his wife appeared and sat by him, patiently spooning the food into his mouth. Was he an “alpha male?” Did he make her swoon with passion? Did he support her any longer? Did he, for that matter, provide her with any benefit at all? No: yet she continued to appear every day for months on end, never complaining, until the day he died. This behavior cannot be explained in terms of rational self interest, and I submit that it might reasonably be called “love.”
As a side question, I’m beginning to notice what is fast becoming a Hollywood cliché in the way it presents the families of its protagonists. These families have several characteristics. First, they are outsized. The median number of children among native born white families is well below two, yet these families have three or four adult siblings who, furthermore, manage to spend what seems like a lot of time together. Second, they are socially progressive and irreligious. This is particularly telling when you consider that most large families are found among religious conservatives. Thirdly, they are wealthy in that peculiarly Rhode Island / Northern California / Cape Cod way: they have large houses in scenic or bucolic locations that a moment’s thought tells you must cost a fortune, yet their denizens are conspicuous in their rustic non-pretentiousness. For instance, I can guarantee you that the family patriarch will be wearing a flannel shirt. The trick, it seems, is to be rich yet strive to look middle class. And finally, as I said, they are hyperkinetic. The adults roughhouse with each other, both verbally and physically. They all have fashionable hobbies, like woodworking, and the time and energy to indulge those hobbies. A family in this mold is the subject of the television series Parenthood (of which I was an avid fan until the second season when I realized that I didn’t actually like any of the main characters).
Does anyone have a family like that? Does anybody know of one?
Speaking for myself: I love the company my own family. I enjoy spending vacations at my parents’ or in-laws’ houses. But I have absolutely no desire to pack those houses with yet another family at the same time, including even (or perhaps especially) that of either of our siblings.
And while I have fond memories of some of the family get-togethers of my own childhood, never once, not once, can I recall ever seeing grownups play football. My uncles might be prevailed upon to toss football with me in the yard (as I had no first cousins within a decade of my own age), and they certainly watched football on television if it was on, but play football? Again I ask: who’s family does this?