January 13, 2008 -- This romantic comedy is set during a holiday season family gathering of generous proportions. Widower Dan Burns (played by Steve Carell of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”) has all he can do to ride herd on his three daughters, two of whom are teenagers, and one, Lilly (Marlene Lawston of “Flightplan”) who will be all too soon. Dan is a successful newspaper columnist who may get syndicated in the near future, meaning more money and more exposure. One of his daughters, Jane (Alison Pill of “Pieces of April”) wants to start driving. Another, Cara (Brittany Robertson of “Keeping Up With the Steins”) wants to start dating. He's not ready for any of that. He's also not ready to start looking for a wife, either. Ready or not, here they come.
With great difficulty, Dan rounds up his kids for the long drive to his parents' house near the ocean for a kind of idealized WASP-ish family gathering. The two older girls spend most of their time pouting because they aren't getting what they want. Upon arrival at the house, Dan's mother (played by Diane Wiest of “The Horse Whisperer”) sees that he is under some stress and tells him to go get the paper and have some time to himself. When Dan protests, she says “Get lost.” He goes to a combination bait shop and bookstore in a nearby small town to browse. Marie, an attractive woman (played by Juliette Binoche of “Chocolat”) mistakes him for an employee and asks for help finding a book. Dan finds a pile of books for her and she buys them all. When the owner of the store informs her that Dan does not work there, she replies that “he should.” They talk for hours before she has to go meet someone. He gets her phone number.
When he returns to the family gathering, he tells his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook of “Good Luck Chuck”) and another family member about the beautiful, interesting woman he met in town, they become very interested and begin to offer advice about how soon he should call her. Dan mentions that the woman is already in a relationship and Mitch says as long as she doesn't have a ring, she's fair game. He'll live to regret those words. When Mitch's new girlfriend arrives, Dan's in for a shock, it is Marie, the same woman he met at the bait-bookstore. The tension between Dan, Mitch and Marie grows over the next few days. It is especially distracting for Dan who is becoming more attracted to Marie, but knows she is off limits as long she and Mitch are an item. Eventually, the situation blows up and Mitch punches Dan in the face.
The moral of the story is that love is messy. You can't control it. You can't manage it. You can't plan for it. It is just there, like a thunderstorm. You deal with it as best you can. Dan's mother has more words of wisdom for him. She tells him that even though he messed up, the one thing they don't fault him for is his attraction to Marie, a woman that everybody likes, even Dan's fickle kids. Since this is a romantic comedy, nobody gets killed, or even seriously hurt. Everything works out for the best in the end. It helps that it is pretty obvious that Mitch is not the right guy for Marie and that Dan is.
I liked all the adults in the film, but Dan's teenaged kids grated on my nerves. They are all spoiled brats who show no respect for their father, even though he is a pretty good guy, and certainly a competent father. Maybe that's the way kids are these days, but they sure are annoying. Steve Carell's performance is spot-on as are most of the adult cast, including Dan's father, played by John Mahoney of the “Frazier” TV show. Writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”) maintains a perfect balance between the comedy and the romance. The dramatic tension between Dan, Mitch and Marie is played for maximum effect. The family gathering is kind of weird. Whoever heard of competitive crossword puzzles combined with group calisthenics? I suppose its possible, but it seems more like forced entertainment on a cruise ship to hell than a normal family gathering. This film rates a B.
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