Dave in Real Life

Charlotte and I and a friend headed to the movies the other day. We wanted to catch the new film by the Coen Brothers, but the local paper printed the wrong movie times and we arrived about 45 minutes late.

Another movie, a comedy, was starting in about 15 minutes. “What do you know about it?” my wife asked. “Not much,” I said. “It has Steve Carrell.”

There was a slight hesitation, but we were already in line. We wanted a movie fix. Why not? We bought three tickets for Dan in Real Life.

Carrell plays Dan, a newspaper columnist in New Jersey, a widower raising three young daughters. The four head north to Rhode Island for a family reunion of unspecified purpose with Dan’s parents, his siblings, and assorted nieces and nephews, all crammed somehow into this spacious house on the water.

The movie was pleasant enough, though I’ll probably have forgotten most of it by the time you read this. What threw me is what Hollywood considers to be a “real life” for a newspaper columnist.

His three daughters are all cute-cute-cute, good at tossing out zingers for laughs throughout the movie. Dan must be a great single dad because the only problems his teenage daughters face involves one who always wants to drive the family car, while another grapples with the pain of forbidden love.

Good fortune must run in the family because there’s more harmony in that house once the family gathers than at a Hare Krishna convention. The siblings all get along, as do the nieces and nephews. The elderly parents crack wise and dispense nuggets of wisdom. 

This is clearly Family of the Year material and the weekend becomes one big Hallmark greeting card. They play charades at night and football on the lawn during the day, even finding time to put on a talent show. The men compete against the women in doing crossword puzzles. Of course, the men lose, but they’re good sports. This is the kind of warm, loving family that you expect to hear shouting “Good Night” to one another at bedtime, like on The Waltons.

In fact, this family is so tight that when a couple of big-time newspaper types want to offer Dan a syndicated column, they come to the house in Rhode Island and interview him in front of his entire family (I guess they heard how good the talent show was).

This isn’t a family. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting. The filmmakers stick upwards of 15 adults and children under the same roof for three days and not one of them gets sick. Not even a sneeze. 

Dan certainly has a good life, though I’m not sure how real it is. Of course, there are those families who are unbelievably close and spend time together, without so much of a whimper of disagreement. 

Charlotte and I have an unwritten rule: Neither one of us will impose our family on the other unless absolutely necessary. We’ve been able to keep attendance at family gatherings to an absolute minimum over the years and it’s clearly helped keep our marriage together.

There are just too many war stories. Too many fragile egos and hurt feelings. Resentments that simmer to the top. Power games at play. I used to do The Family Thing and have enjoyed good times from Seattle to Indiana.

But I also remember pleading with a brother at a Christmas gathering one year to let me take my nephews to a late movie (“Dirty Dancing”). He thought the family should be together. It was a 10 p.m. movie, I pointed out, and others were already going to bed. He finally gave in after heated discussion.

I attended another family member’s 40th birthday party. He came over at one point during the festivities and told me to “stand up straight.” Seriously?

There were always little family dramas unfolding. Which brother gets to host the family this year? Do we attend church together, or not? Do we have to watch another one of my brother’s slide shows? Who is keeping an eye on dad to make sure he behaves? 

Over the years, I’ve done less and less of The Family Thing, choosing instead to celebrate holidays with Charlotte and close friends. If this were a movie, I’d change my mind, show up at Christmas with a turkey and we’d all sing over closing credits.

But real life is always more difficult and sometimes you just have to create your own happy ending.

SLO City News (2007)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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