Celebrating 10 Years of Putting it On Our Tabs: Happy Birthday, Dan in Real Life
On my Facebook group Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin, one of the members recently posted a link reminding me that it was the tenth anniversary of the release of Dan In Real Life. To be honest, I remember almost nothing about Dan in Real Life except that I liked it for the most part, it gave Steve Carell a nice seriocomic lead role and features one of Dane Cook’s best performances (to damn him with the faintest of praise), largely because he played a dumb, good-looking guy coasting through life, something very much in his tiny little wheelhouse.
I could not even give you a serviceable rundown of Dan in Real Life’s plot, but I am obsessed with the movie to the point where I was not surprised that a reader saw something related to Dan in Real Life and apparently thought, “Oh, Nathan will want to see this.” Because while I am fuzzily pro on Dan in Real Life as an unusually slight, if appealing comedy-drama with a likable cast, I am absolutely obsessed with Dan in Real Life as a pop culture reference, in-joke and secretly magnificent exercise in marketing and advertising.
It's a little like Bee Movie in that regard: Bee Movie was barely a movie, but as an object of kitsch and cult, it's weirdly irresistible.
As a movie, Dan in Real Life is eminently forgettable. As a weirdly unforgettable piece of kitsch, however, it possesses what Malcolm Gladwell calls “stickiness”, that ineffable X factor that causes some silly little nonsense like Dan in Real Life to be instantly forgotten, while other nonsense, also like Dan in Real Life, are remembered and written and talked about long after more important, successful and meaningful art and entertainment are forgotten.
The movie’s unexpected stickiness begins with a title that’s an accidentally brilliant parody of Sundance/indie film preciousness. Dan in Real Life. Jesus Christ. What can you even do with a title like Dan in Real Life other than intensely love and hate it at the same time? If you’re a Dan Fan like I am, you want to drop that title into as many conversations as possible, no matter how awkwardly or incongruously, possibly while shortening it with a little online abbreviation to Dan IRL.
Dan in Real Life is remembered partially because it has a wonderfully stupid, awesomely terrible title but its weird cult is attributable to other factors as well. There is, of course, the legendary poster of Steve Carell, Dan of Dan in Real Life himself, with his head resting plaintively on a big old plate of pancakes with butter and syrup, his expression even and blank, seeming at once melancholy and very, very sticky.
This would be a perversely offbeat tableau to promote a film about competitive pancake-eating. For a comedy-drama not explicitly about flapjacks, it’s wonderfully, exquisitely, perversely cryptic. I vaguely remember pancakes figuring in Dan in Real Life, but that doesn’t really matter: the image of Steve Carell’s pancake-head made an indelible impression upon me the first time I saw it, and it remains burned into my imagination to this day.
The final reason Dan IRL is unforgettable despite being completely forgettable is due to its would-be catchphrase: “Put it on my tab.” This line figures very prominently in seemingly all of the trailers and commercials. The studio really wanted audiences to see this tricky, not terribly commercial, very slight little movies as the pancake-head, “Put it on my tab” movie. They clearly thought of it as their “My wife!” or “Do I make you horny?” in no small part because it linked the film to The Office, a very popular sitcom Carell was starring in at the time, and made his character seem like a Michael Scott-like lovable goofball and not an earnest dude in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
So happy belated tenth anniversary Dan in Real Life, the most unforgettable snoozer of all time. I didn’t have time to buy you a present, so you can just put it on my tab.
You know I’m good for it.
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