Written and Directed by Demetri Martin.
Starring Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Reid Scott, Rory Scovel, Ginger Gonzaga, Christine Woods, Briga Heelan, and Peter Scolari
A comedy about loss, grief and the redemptive power of love, Dean is an NY illustrator who falls hard for an LA woman while trying to prevent his father from selling the family home in the wake of his mother’s death.
Finding love as a coping mechanism for fighting through the inherent depression saddled with tragic loss is a concept that most viewers of Dean should be able to relate to (it is the debut film from Demetri Martin who is most known for doing standup comedy and his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin) and find something of value in. The direction is a mixed bag of good ideas alongside touches that simply don’t add anything to the experience, but for the most part, the core of the writing and characters come across as genuine; you actually want them to find peace within the morbid time period of their lives and hope they move on to greener pastures.
The center of the story focuses on a triangular family that has lost its anchor; mom. There is no grand, over-the-top emotional death sequence, and instead, this information is doled out over a quick expository narration during the opening credits. To be honest, the voiceover probably wasn’t necessary, as just from looking at Dean’s (Demetri Martin) drawings (which from a look at his previous published work, we know are whimsical and lighthearted comedic sketches) it is obvious that he has developed an artistic block and is unable to prevent death (literally and physically) from invading his work. Naturally, the father, Robert (Kevin Kline) is not doing so well and is actually thinking about selling the house as a way to let go, which of course young Dean is against, which causes an even greater rift between the two who have never really seen eye to eye in the first place.
Attempting to flee all of his troubles, Dean seeks solitude cross-country from New York to Los Angeles, where through a friend, he meets a similarly artistic woman named Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) that he slowly begins to fall for at a party. Meanwhile, Robert develops a friendship with Carol (Mary Steenburgen), a real estate agent assisting in selling the family home. Both new blossoming friendships are juxtaposed with one another, sometimes even inside the same scene as Demetri Martin enjoys utilizing cross-cuts. Visually, it looks nice, but simultaneously it also hammers home points in a way that is so in-your-face, the hammer may as well be hitting you on the head.
Using that observation as a launching point for my next point of discussion, Dean offers up a number of visual touches that on paper, go hand-in-hand with the character, but the execution never really adds more emotion or substance to the story. If anything, it feels that Dean is a character written as the artistic type just so Demetri Martin can implement all sorts of quirky independent aesthetics, most notably with drawings popping up riffing on the current scene. To say it gets old fast would be an understatement, as it always feels a superfluous stylistic method. The film does vaguely deal with how tragedy can influence one’s artistic output, but there is a lot of missed opportunity. If art were a focus of the movie as equally as important as the growing love between Dean and Nicky, Dean could have really broken through as a special picture exploring how both art (any form of art by the way) and love can nullify the agonizing pain of loss.
The performances across the board are all fine, effectively allowing viewers to empathize with the downbeat situation father and son are working through, although Kevin Kline seems to only have one voice tone which is especially jarring during moments where it feels he should get a little angry and raise his voice. Nevertheless, the interactions between Dean and Robert, along with how they each approach a new friendship with the opposite sex, are the heart of the movie. The humor could have done with less lame jokes about old people struggling to work technology properly, and sometimes Dean can be socially awkward in an off-putting way, but Demetri Martin gets more right than he does wrong drawing his characters.
It’s also enjoyable that Demetri Martin isn’t afraid to let the narrative freewheel, as its occasional lack of direction often emulates that same lack of direction and purpose in Dean’s life trying to push forward without his mother. Dean is one of the few films that actually benefits from zipping through a bunch of random events as it’s a perfect reflection of the title character and not signs of a script gone disastrously wrong during the writing process. Also, there is a very good twist at the end of the movie that also has some quick and brilliant foreshadowing; you’ll definitely appreciate the movie for getting you good in a way that will have you kicking yourself for not catching on.
Dean is a flawed movie that sometimes flubs implementing the same quirky visually stylistic touches that match the personality of the young man himself, but it’s also an engaging dramedy with a striking sense of authenticity that will win over viewers regardless of if they firsthand understand the pain that characters are suffering through. Demetri Martins’s writing and directorial feature debut is a solid start that uses his experience as a comedic talent to weigh in on the tragedy of loss.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★