Movie review: Comedy and pathos meet at the right places in ‘Dean’
The main character in this charming, moving, poignant, and sometimes really funny movie is named Dean, played by standup comic, actor, writer, and first-time director Demetri Martin. Dean was the name of Martin’s late father, to whom, along with his late mom, Lillian, the film is dedicated.
And yes, even though it opens on a melancholy note, with a father and son visiting the grave of their recently departed wife/mom, the film manages to maintain a lightness, some of it courtesy of Martin’s easygoing script, most of it because he’s surrounded himself with the right actors. And Martin, who has done mostly TV work, though had a good part in the feature film “Taking Woodstock,” keeps right up with them.
Kevin Kline does his best work in years as Dean’s dad, Robert, a man deeply shaken by the loss of his wife, but who is determined to keep living his own life, even though he can’t quite map out how to deal with any of it. Mary Steenburgen is the realtor who is helping Robert sell the family home -- much to the dismay of Dean, who doesn’t understand why Dad would do such a thing. She is luminous in the part, yet there’s a hint, even before she admits she’s been trying online dating, that there’s also a sadness inside.
But this is Dean’s story. He’s a bit of a sad sack, a Brooklynite who recently had a breakup with his girlfriend, saves old phone messages from his late-mom, and can talk with but doesn’t have much to say to his dad -- until they start having quiet disagreements about the old homestead. He’s also a talented artist whose specialty is making simple, quirky line drawings that are so good he’s in the midst of trying to meet a publisher’s deadline for his next book. Yet Dean is aimless and confused about life in general. He knows that making a living as a freelance artist requires saying yes to offers that come along, but when he gets one from a firm in L.A., he says that he can’t work “for creatives.” Shortly afterward, as an excuse to avoid yet another talk with his dad about selling the house, he heads to L.A. to meet with some creatives.
While that doesn’t go exactly as planned, he does go to a party, and meets someone who at least temporarily takes his mind off his plentiful worries. That’s Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a free-spirited woman who might be just what he needs and, as the plot unwinds, there are hints that he might be the same for her. Meanwhile, back in New York, Carol and Robert, who are only dealing with each other on a professional basis, start to get a little close, and then closer.
All appears to be going well and it looks like we’re witnessing a couple of couples in the making, one involving a father, the other involving his son, on separate coasts. The relaxed happiness on the screen is accompanied by a Greek chorus of poppy songs on the soundtrack by Pete Dello, a British singer-songwriter who attained some popularity in the late-60s and early-70s, but never quite made it. A listen to “It’s What You’ve Got” and “I’m a Gambler” could cause folks to track down his great album “Into Your Ears.”
But this movie might have lost interest if it just kept going forward with no ruts in its path. Relationships are not easy. When it looks like one may be starting between Carol and Robert, there’s a sobering moment, brilliantly achieved by Kline, of him coming to the realization, in his own head, that he’s still married. A whole different set of circumstances is revealed between Dean and Nicky. One premise of the film involves people reaching out for love, but finding that it’s not all that easy to get.
Its strongest components are those wonderful songs, the endless supply of funny drawings (some are even funnier when their subject starts turning to death), and Martin’s structural idea of filling the script with a lot of one-on-one conversations, the best of which are between Kline and Steenburgen, and Kline and Martin. A bonus: If you stay for the end credits, you get to see even more of those drawings.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Demetri Martin
With Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen