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When asked about the origin of his writing/directing debut Dean, Demetri Martin self-effacingly joked that, ready to tackle something narrative after years doing stand-up, he thought a comedy about a mother’s death had real moneymaking potential. Grief dramedies are a lot less unusual than the comedian suggests, and in fact can seem like a rite of passage for young performers ready to show some range. But Martin’s Dean is more than funny enough to earn its keep, a gentle misfit tale that only gets baldly therapeutic at the very end. Commercial prospects are stronger than the director thinks, especially given the broad exposure he has had since breaking out a decade ago on The Daily Show.
As the title character, Martin plays a Brooklyn cartoonist who has been blocked in the months since his mother’s death; he can’t manage to keep the Grim Reaper out of his single-panel gags. (That doesn’t keep the drawings, in a style familiar to Martin’s fans, from getting laughs.) Dean’s floundering doesn’t sit well with his engineer father (Kevin Kline), who sees grief as a problem to fix and has decided selling the family house will help him move on. Terrified of the father/son talk that will allow this transaction to move forward, Dean impulsively accepts an invitation to meet with an ad company in Los Angeles.
The meeting’s a bust — one of several opportunities Martin takes to skewer contemporary douchebaggery — but the trip lets him catch up with a couple of friends and, at a stranger’s party, to humiliate himself charmingly in front of Nicky (Gillian Jacobs). Despite letting a couple of opportunities escape, he manages to see her again. Extending his trip to chase Nicky doesn’t feel like running away from anything, to Dean or to us; but the film sees the big picture, and understands that Dean is going to invest too much in this budding romance.
Is every amorous encounter that follows a major life change doomed to function only as a rebound? Surely real life is more varied than that, but it’s often enough the case that Dean‘s handling of this affair doesn’t feel dishonestly formulaic. Better, though, is its handling of Dean’s father’s first attempt to re-enter the dating world: Kline and Mary Steenburgen (as his realtor) have some nice moments together, navigating the inevitable bittersweet reality-check gracefully.
Talk of mourning and thwarted love makes Dean sound like much more of a downer than it is. Martin’s drawings — which often pop up in split-screen, wryly commenting on the action or embodying his character’s mood — go a long way toward helping the actor (in just his second leading role) command the screen, but his comic persona is well-honed. Less meta and more invested than he has been on TV, Martin has no trouble bringing us along for the ride. If grief dramedies are as much a rite of passage as romantic rebounds, it’s exciting to imagine what Martin’s next step as a filmmaker will look like.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Production company: Honora
Cast: Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Rory Scovel, Ginger Gonzaga, Reid Scott, Mary Steenburgen, Christine Woods, Beck Bennett, Briga Heelan
Director-screenwriter: Demetri Martin
Producers: Giles Andrew, Elliott Watson, Jessica Latham, Demetri Martin, Charles James Denton
Executive producers: Ryan Brooks, Adi Ezroni, Mandy Tagger
Director of photography: Mark Schwartzbard
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designers: Keri Langerman, Erica Rice
Editor: Joshua Salzberg
Composer: Mark Noseworthy
Casting directors: Peter Kousakis, Johanna Tacadena
Not rated, 93 minutes