I’m noticed that since its premiere a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival that comedian Demetri Martin’s directing debut, Dean, has been criticized by some as trying to hard to feel like an updated, early-era Woody Allen movie. The newsflash is that Allen isn’t really making those types of movie any more, so why shouldn’t someone else throw their version of a troubled young romantic into the ring? The worst that can happen is you laugh a little and possibly are moved by the surprisingly raw emotions on display.
Martin’s stand-up persona is a somewhat distancing, pseudo-intellectual who slips in jokes before you even realize the set-up has begun. He’s quite masterful in that respect, so to see him make a film that feels so personal and intimate is the first of my surprises in Dean. Martin plays a New York-based illustrator who has been suffering from “artist’s block” since his mother died recently, leaving him and his father Robert (Kevin Kline) lost and attempting to find a way to reconnect without her as the focal point in the family. Dean has become somewhat insufferable, both as a friend (he nearly ruins a friend’s wedding attempting to establish best man dominance) and a son, as he drags his heels in setting up a meeting with Robert to discuss the possibility of selling the family home.
To further delay said discussion, Dean decides to take a meeting with an ad agency in Los Angeles, giving him an excuse to avoid dad and visit a few friends who live out west. Still reeling from the break-up of a long-term relationship, Dean meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs of “Community” and last year’s Don’t Think Twice) and the two seem to hit it off, although it’s clear she has a few personal issues of her own. Jacobs is one of the true strengths of the film, as she refuses to let her character simply be potential-girlfriend material. Instead, Nicky brings an entirely separate set of issues to Dean’s misfit island. Still, their deeply rooted brand of pain not only makes sense, but it comes across as sweet and necessary.
Back on the East Coast, Robert is preparing to put his home on the market with the help of real estate agent Carol (the essential Mary Steenburgen), who is moved by Robert’s way of moving through and past grief, but not quite being there yet. She’s had bad luck with online dating sites, so Robert’s troubles don’t seem insurmountable. Although it may not always feel like it, Dean is a movie about a father and son finding each other again, but taking a roundabout way to get there. Martin has crafted two complex, but ultimately good people who know they have to move forward, through their grief, but refuse to feel rushed by anyone, even each other.
As a sometime illustrator himself, Martin uses his real-life drawings as a stealthy transitioning device between scenes. Sometimes the drawings summarize the scene we’ve just witnessed; other times, they act as a way to ease into more difficult moments. The filmmaker deftly uses the artwork as a way to increase or decrease the level of humor as a way of establishing tone, and we move onto the next sequence with a degree of ease, rather than a jarring edit. Dean is quite amusing, but it isn’t afraid to dive into the loss these men are enduring. Sure, there was a time when Woody Allen may have considered this story in his wheelhouse, but I love that a new generation of filmmakers might take a stab at giving us this type of stumbling sensitivity. And if Kevin Kline doesn’t break your heart a few times in this film, you might be due for an emotional tune up.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. To read my exclusive interview with Dean writer-director-star Demetri Martin, go to Ain’t It Cool News.