Monday, January 31, 2011

Dan in Real Life

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:

Murderer of Love

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?


Thursday said...

Successful people in Hollywood seem to have a lot of kids.

I am also guessing that the genuinely rich also tend to have a fair amount of kids. After all, they can afford them and have the money for nannies etc., so kids don't take away much time from having fun either.

Of course, they are a vanishingly small percentage of the general population, but they happen to be in the field of vision of a lot of Hollywood types, so they make it on film.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching the show Blue Bloods lately and one of the things that jumped out at me was that it centered around a family that actually said grace before eating. One does not get the impression that they're all that devout, but it's remarkable how strange that is on TV compared to real life.

Regarding Dan in Real Life, I largely agree. I have known some families to play football (my in-laws played tag-tackle), but it's much rarer in real life than on TV. But I think that, like the larger families, is mostly story lubrication. The things we really do are much less interesting to watch.

Regarding the daughter, I actually interpreted that in somewhat of a different manner. I don't think that there is any rational basis for my having done so (your interpretation is likely what they had in mind) except maybe so that it didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie.

Dr. Φ said...

Thursday: interesting observation on the fertility patterns of the super rich. Can you source it?

Trumwill: The penultimate scene has Dan confessing to his daughters that his yearning for Marie is analogous to middle daughter's yearning for Pedro. It was painfully didactic. But I'd like to hear your alternative interpretation.

You may be right that (IMO) lazy writers set up implausible scenes for the purpose of establishing character relationships, etc.

I gotta check out Blue Bloods.

Anonymous said...

I saw it as more of an ironic similarity than a parallel. An example of the ridiculousness of the feelings that he nonetheless sincerely developed (in the same three days it took her to realize her "love") rather than as a validation of the depth of hers. Another inconvenience in a series of inconveniences that plagued his weekend.

I do think yours is more likely what the writers were going for, but I think I resist it because I just can't bring myself to believe that an otherwise responsible man would really equate his daughter's puppy love with the presumptive love of his life. It undermines the love story that is the thrust of the movie, which negates the time spent watching (and mostly enjoying) it. So I take it more as "Yeah... three days... how about that."

Anonymous said...

Reading over my previous comment, it's about as clear as mud, so I'm going to try again...

The main point of comparison between Dan and Daughter was that Daughter had said earlier in the movie that she knew she loved Boy after three days and he had said that was ridiculous. Then, there he is at the end of the movie, he is saying that he loves her after three days. I read (or chose to read) that as being more of an ironic eating-his-own-words sort of thing than an agreement that Daughter's love for Boy was genuine.

Given that he let the older daughter drive, I would expect that he probably let Daughter see Boy when they got back, but I decline to believe that he believes it's love on par with what he felt for Marie.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Blue Bloods, I can recommend it if you like cop shows (which I do), though not as much otherwise. There is some good philosophical discussion on civil liberties and means-and-ends and the like within the Reagan family with the rarity of those arguing the anti-liberal opinion being also-protagonists rather than anti-heroes, scummy, or foils only to be proven wrong by the episode's end. So far, anyway.

Dr. Φ said...

Trumwill: I think your interpretation of the relationship between Dan's feelings and his daughter's isn't far off, and it brings to mind something I couldn't integrate into the original post.

I can sympathize with Dan's feelings for Marie because, um, a man doesn't have to be a widower to have a flutter whenever an attractive girl is nice to him. Believe me, I totally get how having an intimate conversation over a cup of coffee stirred Dan's romantic interest in Marie. But having those feelings doesn't make her his true "soul mate" or whatever. While the movie kept its focus on the social/moral difficulty involved with wooing his brother's girlfriend, it didn't seem to give much weight to the possibility that Dan wasn't really keeping his own feelings in perspective.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, when I saw that you were writing a post on this movie, I almost immediately thought that's where you were going to go with it (Dan's lack of perspective). That's another thing I sort of overlook. Partly because it made the movie better than it otherwise would have been* and partially because I do believe that sometimes you "just know" from very early on.

Sort of on that subject, though, my friend (and HC commenter) Abel Keogh wrote a book about his wife's death and his subsequent re-entry into the dating market, called "Room for Two."

Dr. Φ said...

Well, obviously if Dan had just shrugged it off, there would have been no dramatic tension. But my complaint is that the movie succumbed to didacticism by the end.

People's felt experiences are what they are, but I can't help but suspect that "the one" feeling is a combination of favorable timing and confirmation bias. In my own case, I would assert the exact opposite: that because I did NOT succumb to "oneitis", my courtship of Mrs. Phi was successful.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I think Blogger ate my comment. There's not one in a moderation queue, is there?

Dr. Φ said...

Trumwill: Just checked. Nothing. Sorry, that's happened to me before, too.