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Dean

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 2, 2017
'Dean'
'Dean'  

A new entry into the navel-gazing mumblecore genre is the Demetri Martin-written-directed-and-starring "Dean," a bone-dry comedy that smacks equally of Woody Allen and Lena Dunham.

Dean's mother has died; he and his father, Robert (Kevin Kline) need to figure things out, such as whether or not to sell the family's Brooklyn home. Robert is all for it, but Dean is not, even though he no longer lives there -- a thirtyish cartoonist with a book of "quirky" drawings to his credit, Dean is on his own, though Robert still looks at him as a slacker. But the loss has hit him so hard that Dean's not yet ready to surrender anything that reminds him of his mother -- not the house, not even her voice mails.

Everything else in Dean's life seems to be going awry, too. He's got a case of cartoonist's block, and can't manage to draw anything without a grim reaper in it. He's broken up with his fiancee, Michelle (Christine Woods) and been demoted to the status of "co-best man" at his best friend Brett's (Reid Scott) wedding, a turn that doesn't do much for his ego, especially once Eric (Rory Scovel) -- an old college friend now living in Los Angeles -- jokingly dismisses Dean as the "second-best man."

Something has to shake Dean out of his funk, and it turns out to be a business trip to L.A. to discuss a project he's not really interested in. The meeting (which turns out to be with a pair of startup bros that seem to be rolling in cash and success despite their auras of ADD cluelessness) lasts all of about two minutes, but the project isn't really the reason for the trip. More to the point is Dean's need to delay his father's plans to sell the house.

One thing leads to another, and the trip turns into a string of humiliations. Old friend Becca (Briga Heelan) takes Dean to a party, where he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) and her sarcastic friend Jill (Ginger Gonzaga); Becca then makes a bizarre pass at Dean, before kicking him out of her car in a fit of pique. Eric proves to be a steadier presence, even though he's now got a cat (evidently this is some sort of taboo for hip young Millennials). The trip gets longer and stranger when a text message from Nicky proves adequate to get Dean off the plane just as he's about to return home. Is the lad falling in love?

The dad certainly is. While Dean drifts from one awkward situation to another in California, back in New York Robert moves forward with getting the house on the market. This entails making the acquaintance of a realtor named Carol (Mary Steenburgen); the two hit it off from the start. Even though Robert's side of things is accorded B-story status, his romance with Carol is the more substantive, and it feels refreshingly adult. Dean's misadventures (accompanied by an iPod-ready soundtrack by Pete Dello & Honeybus that could double as an open mic setlist in some dimly lit, bohemian coffeehouse) start to have a grating quality, straining as they do for a certain shade and temperature of off-the-wallness.

Once in a while those efforts do pay off, as when Eric and Dean go to a noisy bar; their conversation is so completely blotted out by loud music that the film offers subtitles, including the wry and ironic notation, "(audible sigh)." At another juncture, testing a claim that one can see Central Park by pressing one's face a window, Dean mashes against the glass and is rewarded with the sight of a man and his dog both peeing on a tree.

Dean being a cartoonist, the film is illustrated with clever drawings (these, too, spring from Martin's creative wellspring) that show, at a glance, his precise emotional state. A mishap in public leads to a sketch of Dean in a pile of shit; at a party where everyone else seems to have their lives on track, his quiet isolation is summarized by a doodle showing him as doll sized and surrounded by giant people, their legs like a forest. A whole collection of these drawings accompany the closing credits: A giraffe in a neck brace, a broken heart that puts up a brave front but, from the rear, can be seen to be shattered.

Overall, the film has a loose, semi-improv quality, and feels like a series of sketch comedy vignettes more or less strung into a story. This structure works for the main character, as it will for the emotionally rootless and the spiritually dispossessed. And why not? For a film about loss, a certain narrative lostness is, perhaps, a positive quality. In other words, "Dean" is just about perfect for these blue-tinged, uncertain days, when navel gazing, grasping for vanished happier days, and formless grief seem to characterize the national mood.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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