How many mothers and wives must independent cinema bump off for the purpose of guiding their children and husbands toward existential catharsis? Where will the body count end, and when? Probably never; people die, and when they do, their surviving relatives will invariably tell stories about them to cope with their loss. This is especially true if telling stories is how they pay rent, though filmmakers have a habit of warping the stories they tell around themselves and not their late loved ones, a’la “Other People,” “The Go-Getter,” or “Garden State.”
Joining this number is comedian, writer, and author Demetri Martin’s “Dean,” a movie that, in other hands, told from another perspective, would feel far more routine than it does coming from Martin, as quietly dry a presence on stage as on the page and on screen. There’s a specific Martin-ness we expect from his work, a contract made between him and his audience as soon as they engage one another: He’ll supply the innocently matter of fact observational humor, they’ll unpack his frankness to mine laughter and insight. In this respect, “Dean” isn’t any different from his stand-up, his TV series, “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” or his growing bibliography. The film invites your apprehension while asking for your sympathy. Ultimately, it rewards you for laughing at death as easily as pratfalls.
Martin is a man born to spin his embarrassments into punchlines. Partway through “Dean,” as his title character first lays eyes on Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) at a friend’s’ party where he knows no one, he tries to catch her attention and ends up looking like a textbook schlemiel, knocking a heavily laden platter to the floor in slow-mo. Caught in such a moment, most of us might wish for a stray lightning bolt to strike us down. Dean, to his credit, makes no outside indication that he’s begging for divine intervention, but on the inside we know he’s probably praying to Zeus, or then again, maybe not; if he favors one mythological figure over the rest, it’s Thanatos, the dark, hooded character he can’t help including in his sketches following his mother’s passing.
Both “Dean,” the movie, and Dean, its protagonist, are obsessed with death and with dying. Like most young people tend to do when confronted with mortality in cinema, Dean flees his life in New York City at the first opportunity, abandoning his dad, Robert (Kevin Kline), as well as his responsibilities to his publisher, for the warm embrace of Los Angeles. Dean has ostensibly good reasons for jetting off to L.A., among them a meeting with advertising “creatives” keen on using his work in their copy, but if you’ve seen this type of movie before, you know that Dean is really running away from reality, from his pain, from facing up to the fact that the death of his mother means change in his life. It’s the difference between saying goodbye and plugging your ears with your fingers, chanting “I can’t hear you” to ward off the crushing weight of your universe.
For the most part, the film works. Where it doesn’t occurs mostly in the theatrical mechanics linking Martin to Kline, and perhaps with Kline’s presentation in general. Robert has an easier time dealing with his spouse’s death than Dean does, but he’s also prone to generational clichés: he has no idea, for instance, how to work modern technology, like smart phones, which in his hands ring endlessly as he struggles to shut them off. As Dean puts his dad off on his L.A. jaunt, Robert prepares to sell their old house and move into an apartment, and in so doing romances his real estate agent, Carol (Mary Steenburgen); their flirtations parallel the flirtations Dean has with Nicky, but that’s about it. Short of Robert leaving Dean voice messages pressing his son to come home and face up to their circumstances, one gets the sense that Martin and Kline exist in nearly separate movies. The connective tissue linking them feels uncharacteristically weak for the material.
But if the two driving narrative threads of “Dean” don’t entwine as well as they should, they’re both a pleasure to watch on their own merits, though it may go without saying that the bulk of the film is focused on Martin. As with most of the characters he plays, Dean is a locus for Martin’s array of quirks, insecurities, and witticisms, a guy who sees the farce beneath the surface of the world we live in. He’s smart, shy, self-protective, wise in his oddball way; we like him immediately and without reservation, if only because all of us have, at one time or another, been put in the same unenviable position life’s vicissitudes force him into here. Kline, by contrast, gives “Dean” weight in the form of experience, playing Robert as a man adrift but not without his bearings. He’s fully aware of what one must do, in practical terms, once they’ve buried their significant other. Other than that, he’s as lost as his son.
Both Kline and Martin are enhanced through their interactions with their co-leads; Jacobs and Steenburgen both shine brighter than the lead stars in many ways, lending the film a luminosity it might otherwise lack. But as good as the film’s cast members are in their respective chapters, they can’t make up for its lack of cohesion. It takes more than a few missed phone calls to unify two related but disparate storylines, or at least to bind them such that each enhances the other’s intentions. Maybe this is proof of Martin’s own experiences; he draws on the stuff of his life to shape Dean’s, using his personal tragedies as inspiration rather than as a blueprint. Maybe he didn’t have drama with his mother after his father died, as we expect Dean might with Robert for his dereliction of duty.
Whatever the case may be, “Dean” succeeds regardless of what it’s missing, a fine first effort from Martin that nicely showcases his comedic style and handles its subject matter with gentle, friendly care. (Afterthought: Maybe Martin is just a big fan of Coleridge.) It’s missing bite, but you’ll appreciate its tender humors all the same. [B]