For his directorial debut, comedian Demetri Martin made a movie about death.
“Dean” is about a Brooklyn-based illustrator named Dean who’s unable to cope with his mother’s death. Instead of moving on, he tries to make time stand still. He refuses to make any decisions, calls off his engagement, and won’t talk to his father about selling his childhood home. He’s stuck.
Dean then flees to Los Angeles in search of creative stimulation and romance, but nothing seems to click. Just when he gets into what he thinks is a promising relationship — with a woman played by Gillian Jacobs — he ruins it.
This certainly isn’t the first movie about a young white dude from Brooklyn dealing with personal issues. But what sets “Dean” apart is that it’s a genuinely emotional story, premised partly on Martin’s experience with his father’s death.
The movie isn’t autobiographical, but Martin lifts several narrative threads from his personal experiences, like when he broke off a long-term relationship at age 29. Martin’s father, named Dean, died when Martin was 20, and he wrote an early draft of the movie’s screenplay then. Now 42, he turned “Dean” into a mature work filled with stories that grapple with lost love and loved ones.
Kevin Kline, who plays Martin’s father, also helps set the movie apart. While Kline had his heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s, starring in a string of comedy classics like “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Dave,” and “In & Out,” lately he’s been in a series of forgettable films. Martin said that Kline and his love interest, Mary Steenburgen, forwent their usual fees and shot their scenes over just three days of the entire 20-day shoot.
Those scenes are some of the movie’s most powerful, and Kline elevates the entire film as Robert, a retired engineer. Like any engineer, he sees every obstacle in life as a problem to be solved, and mourning is no different. Robert reads books on mourning, assiduously follows the advice of his therapist, and takes it in stride when a new romance enters his life. He is funny, though not particularly good with words, and an authoritative figure who struggles to connect with his son. At first, Dean scorns his father’s approach to moving on, but eventually they learn how to mourn together.
Contrary to how it may sound, the movie is not a downer. It’s funny, and filled with visual puns. Dean draws picture books, like Martin in real life, and puts those illustrations to good use in the movie. There are also some healthy skewerings of the tech industry, like when Dean flies to Los Angeles to meet with vapid self-styled “creatives,” and shares best man duties at his best friend’s wedding with a venture capital bro straight out of the show “Silicon Valley.”
But between Kline’s welcome screen presence and a carefully-balanced dramedy script, “Dean” is more moving, funny, and personal than expected. I’m glad Martin got to make it.