Demetri Martin’s ‘Dean’ is hilarious and heartfelt
Written and directed: Demetri Martin
Starring: Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, and Rory Scovel
“Dean” – Walking on a beautiful Southern California beach on a bright, sunny day is just about the most wonderful way to spend time. Sure, Redondo, Manhattan, Santa Monica, and Venice might be crowded with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people with the same therapeutic thoughts of sand and sun, but a stroll on a beach can certainly provide a salutary reprieve from your troubles.
In a wonderfully comedic visual, we see Dean (Demetri Martin) walking on a long stretch of beach, wearing street clothes and dragging his luggage through the soft powder. This New York City illustrator flies to Southern California to get away from his anxieties back home, but Dean finds himself trekking on the beach at that particular moment for a very different reason. He’s taking a risk. A glorious, love-pursuing risk.
Martin also took a risk by writing and directing his first feature film, “Dean”, but this stand-up comedian strikes cinematic gold by crafting the best comedy that I have seen so far this year.
Now, sometimes the best humor stems from a place of tribulation. In this case, Dean’s mother passed away, and he is coping with her death, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that she is gone. Looking for solace, he listens to her old voicemails and turns to his father (Kevin Kline) for company and discourse, but he feels a bit betrayed. His dad, Robert (Kline), is selling the family house, and Dean thinks that part of his mom’s memory will disappear once the house is sold and the closing is finalized.
He needs to bolt, so this talented - but somewhat directionless - illustrator heads to the left coast to interview for a job and visit some friends. Wrapped in a speedy runtime of 1 hour 27 minutes, the film features Dean’s awkward journey to hopeful self-discovery through a nearly constant series of hilarious sequences and seemingly hundreds of perfectly-timed moments that only a true comic talent can deliver.
Martin places Dean in the company of Southern California’s absurdities, including a very confusing conversation with an irrational wannabe actress, a run-in with two caffeinated improv actors and a club in which loud industrial beats drown out everything. With sharp writing and steadfast performances, no false beats can be heard or seen anywhere.
Dean’s encounters strike our funny bones with pure belly laughs or an intended mix of humor and angst. This mix comfortably dances in the same ballroom with memorable comedies like “Frances Ha” (2012), “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Superbad” (2007) in which likeable heroes try to navigate in unfamiliar spaces and sometimes make wrong turns. Martin makes lots of right turns with his pen and paper, as his own drawings make several onscreen appearances to reinforce Dean’s feelings in many, many scenes.
Martin’s drawings almost become another character, and their entrances are repeated welcomes for the audience. Bear in mind, the movie’s surprises and pleasantries are not all fun and games, because Dean is grappling with the death of his mom, so the artwork and the overall story do move in dark places. Death seems ever looming in Dean’s mind, so many light moments are sometimes laced with uneasiness or cynicism.
Then again, that’s human nature and part of the healing process, so the supporting players stand by Dean’s side and challenge him with ample amounts of conversational fodder, including terrific performances by Rory Scovel, Gillian Jacobs and Kline. Kline’s Robert grapples with current technology, his widower status and Dean’s curious choices, but this dad always emanates from a place of warmth and sincerity. In a nice subplot, Robert meets a sweet real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), and their onscreen time really makes you wish that Steenburgen can appear in every movie. How can we make that happen?
Dean makes a sweet overture of his own after a chance meeting with Nicky (Jacobs), but not without an embarrassing first impression and a clever onscreen drawing. Lately, Dean’s life has felt like an uphill climb, but to his credit, he is trying to make his own luck. Now, taking a risk does open up vulnerabilities, where losing becomes a real possibility. It takes guts and nerve, but if you follow that path, you could find yourself walking with a true purpose on a Southern California beach, looking ahead while trying to leave your troubles behind.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.