Demetri Martin has had a long career as a standup comic, as well as an actor and writer on shows like The Daily Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. He makes his debut as a screenwriter and director with the dramedy Dean. Although the film is uneven and more than a bit derivative, Martin shows himself to be a filmmaker of potential. Strong performances from Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, and Gillian Jacobs help to smooth the rougher edges.
The opening shows Dean (Martin) and his father Robert (Kline) at the New York gravesite of Dean’s recently deceased mother. Robert, an engineer, views grief as a problem to be solved. He plunges into therapy sessions and contacts a real estate agent (Steenburgen) for help in selling the family home.
For Dean, an illustrator given to procrastination, grief manifests as inertia. He misses deadlines for his new book. When Robert asks him to help clean out the house, Dean finds an excuse to hop a plane to Los Angeles.
After his meeting with a cutting-edge dot.com falls flat, Dean puts off flying home. His friend Eric (Rory Scovel) drags him to a party, where he falls (literally and figuratively) for Nicky (Gillian Jacobs). Pursuing her pulls Dean out of his funk and, ultimately, sets him on the difficult task of moving forward after loss.
Dean often strikes me as the cinematic equivalent to a child walking around in its parent’s shoes. The plot is retread Garden State with hints of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. Although beautifully lensed by Mark Schwartzbard (Best Of Enemies), Dean blunts the effect of its split screens through overuse. Ditto Martin’s insertion of doodles to show his/Dean’s state of mind. To this viewer, showing a doodle of a critically injured pet qualifies as cruel, not funny.
Even so, I think Dean makes insightful statements about the process of grief. Most of these occur through Robert, and I cannot say enough good things about Kevin Kline’s performance. He and Steenburgen are wonderful together. They attempt a date, which ends badly. She looks at him ruefully and says, “I finally meet a guy I like, and it turns out he’s married.” The point is made, but not overemphasized.
Gillian Jacobs also deserves praise for her performance as Nicky. In films like Dean, Jacobs’ role often exists as a plot contrivance to help develop the male lead. That is not the case here. Thanks to Martin and Jacobs, Nicky emerges as a multifaceted individual.
It is those kinds of moments that make me look forward to Martin’s next feature. I hope he stops trying to channel the voices of other filmmakers and listens more to his own.
Theme: Laughter From Sadness
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