Demetri Martin’s new movie, “Dean,” is not terribly funny despite it seemingly wanting to be a comedy. That is slightly problematic if one understands “comedy” to mean that a movie ought to generate a substantial number of laughs (“Dean” has a few laughs, but not a lot). If, however, one feels as though a comedy simply need not have everyone die at the end, “Dean” is far more successful.
Part of the reason for this is that, in fact, “Dean”–which is Martin’s first film as writer, director, and star–starts with one of the movie’s primary figures, Dean’s mother, already having passed away, much to the distress of Dean (Martin) and Dean’s father, Robert (Kevin Kline). While the film focuses more upon the son than the father, it is about both men figuring out how to keep going forward now that this central figure in their world is gone.
Whatever “Dean” doesn’t generate in laughs, it makes up for in earnestness. As a character, Dean may be distressed but he doesn’t wallow in it, he knows he’s having trouble and he’s not sure what to do about it, but he never asks the outside world for an extra bit of kindness or understanding. Robert is the same, but still completely different in what he does to keep moving forward – Robert wants to sell the house he lived in with his wife, and in which Dean was raised, while Dean runs off to California to avoid having talk about the sale.
If as a film “Dean” hits the audience with anything over the head a little too hard, it’s this preordained dance between father and son. It, like the end of the film itself, offers a foregone conclusion and consequently every time “Dean” nudges the audience about how the two men are dealing with the same problems and may be more alike than they care to admit, there is a rising urge to yell back at the screen that we get it already. The same desire to yell at the screen pops up when Dean explains how he can’t finish his book of drawings because he keeps drawing the figure of Death in them and he doesn’t really intend that to happen.
As for the comedy, “Dean” attempts to find laughs in pointing out how ridiculous people are in both New York and Los Angeles… but mainly Los Angeles. Rather than actually creating fully dimensional characters though, the movie mainly focuses on making quirky characters and then in the end, showing the audience, more than once, how people who we thought were one thing are really quite another; that maybe our initial impression of them was incorrect. Like the viewer’s ability to recognize other elements of the story before they come out, this, too, is telegraphed. Here the audience’s choice is either that the characters are rude/horrible human beings or we’re just not allowed to see their other sides, and the former seems far less likely than the latter.
While not all the characters are built in this fashion, too many are, and it is a shame as the cast is full of familiar faces (even if they’re just a cameo) who are able to do more. Over the course of “Dean” we see the likes of Mary Steenburgen, Gillian Jacobs, Reid Scott, Peter Scolari, Briga Heelan, and Rory Scovel. Jacobs is wonderful, even if her character falls into the above trap, and Steenburgen is short-changed as she is in Robert’s portion of the film which is far too brief.
Yet, for all its problems, the earnestness of “Dean” keeps coming through. Like Dean himself, “Dean” feels good-natured through all of its faults. Tales of overcoming loss are not exactly new, but like each individual who has to overcome a loss, and that loss being new to them, the movie feels like it is slowly moving forward in the best way it can, even if we know the end of the tale. We need to let it reach its own conclusion rather than forcing it there, and its slow, methodical, pursuit of that end, with two touching characters at its core, make us want to take that journey with “Dean.”
photo credit: CBS Films