Demetri Martin, best known for the distinctive deadpan of his stand-up comedy, makes the transition into feature filmmaking as writer, director and star with just the right blend of humor and heartbreak. Dean is a comedy about grief – specifically, what to do with sorrow when you’re still hurting and the people around you have moved on.
Martin excels in the title role, a Brooklyn cartoonist named Dean who’s reeling from the death of his mother. He goes through the motions, but just under the surface his pain is palpable; his doodles continually show the Grim Reaper intruding on his everyday life. His engineer father, Robert (a superb Kevin Kline), has decided to put the family home on the market, the better to move on from his own loss. It’s a decision that panics Dean and sends him on a trip to Los Angeles to audition for an advertising job he doesn’t want. The avoidance therapy is interrupted, however, when the young man falls hard – too hard – for the Angeleno pixie-dream Nicky (a terrific Gillian Jacobs). Dean hangs on for dear life. He doesn’t really notice that Nicky is nursing her own wounds.
It’s an intensely personal film that draws directly on Martin’s talents as comic, author and illustrator – panels of his actual sketches frequently share the screen with live action. The film’s NY/LA axis, plus a buoyant song score from Pete Dello and Honeybus, have prompted comparisons to Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. But Martin is his own man, a filmmaker who plays it too close to the bone for glib dismissals. His father, a Greek Orthodox priest named Dean Martin (really), died from kidney cancer when Demetri was a junior at Yale in 1993. The loss hit him hard. Besides, so few films deal with the mourning process that the triple-threat should be commended for putting himself out there so openly and courageously.
The core of the film comes in watching Dean and Robert deal with next steps in their own ways. His father has a dinner date with Carol (a warmly appealing Mary Steenburgen), the real estate agent who’s selling his home, and you can feel Robert soaking up her vitality. In an indelibly moving scene, at the elevator in her apartment (she’s invited him up), the widower finds himself stalled, unable to make the first move without feeling like being unfaithful to his late wife. It’s a moment of supreme delicacy.
For Dean, the process proceeds in baby steps, with the ego-centric artist beginning to notice what people – notably his dad – are feeling outside of his own personal bubble. Let me point out that humor courses through all these scenes, but never in a way that would cheapen emotion for a joke. No exploding fireworks, mind you, just perceptions as subtly sketched as one of Martin’s drawings. The invisible borders of loneliness are never quite erased, but our hero does find a lifeline in creativity and human contact. That, and Martin’s ability to marshal all his talents into a film of rare wit and touching gravity, makes Dean an exhilarating gift.