'I'll See You in My Dreams': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner in 'I'll See You in My Dreams'
A warm and endearing exploration of what it’s like to begin something new when you’re not far from the end

Director Brett Haley's bittersweet comedy-drama stars Blythe Danner as a widow making new friends in her eighth decade.

Blythe Danner lands her best screen role in years as a retired widow who decides to dip a tentative toe into the dating pool in indie comedy I’ll See You in My Dreams. Although on paper that description might sound as schmaltzy as a chicken-product rendering plant, director Brett Haley’s second feature has a disarming lightness of touch that keeps the proceedings buoyant, even when they inevitably brush up against mortality. Class-act supporting turns from Martin Starr and Sam Elliott as potential love interests, plus June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place as the protagonist’s golden-girl pals, supplement this neat gift-basket of treats. Obviously, the logline alone will appeal to mature viewers, but what’s not to like about a film where a septuagenarian tells a potential date that he “doesn’t have herpes, but it’s OK if you do.”

Widowed for over 20 years, Carol (Danner, looking fantastically sexy and soigné at 71) has settled into a placid routine, living out her days in a tastefully appointed SoCal suburban home where the color of the stand mixer matches the dog bowl. She enjoys bridge parties with her three friends (Squibb, Perlman and Place) who all live in a retirement community nearby, plays a bit of golf, and enjoys an evening — or even lunchtime — glass of chardonnay or two with her faithful golden retriever Hazel by her side.

When the aged Hazel has to be put down, Carol is saddened but feels surprisingly benumbed by the loss. In a way, Hazel’s dying sort of does her a favor since his absence opens her up to new experiences, the first of which is making friends with Lloyd (Starr, Freaks and Geeks, Silicon Valley), a depressed young man roughly 30 years her junior who’s working as a pool maintenance guy out of necessity. Carol and Lloyd’s shared enthusiasm for music and alcohol results in them going to a karaoke night at a local bar. It’s not exactly a date, but not necessarily not a date either, judging by the admiring glances exchanged over the evening’s course, especially when Lloyd watches Carol croon a silky rendition of “Cry Me a River.”

Meanwhile, Carol has also caught the roguish eye of Bill (Elliott), a new arrival at her friends’ retirement community. Unlike the sad sacks at a speed-dating event Carol attends with her girlfriends (where one randy dude utters the aforementioned herpes line), Bill is a silver fox equipped with just the right combination of courtly manners, Southern-boy swagger and discreet virility, none-too-subtly signified by the phallic cigar he carries about with him unlit at all times. Funny, smart, rich enough to own a fancy motor boat, but unencumbered by children or demanding ex-wives, keen on people but happy with a quiet life, he would be any woman of this generation’s dream catch.

However, it becomes clear that Haley and co-screenwriter Marc Basch’s aim isn’t to provide a tidy rom-com for the post-menopausal set, but to explore what it’s like to try to begin something new when you’re not far from the end. Or, in the case of one scene where the four ladies get stoned on medicinal marijuana, retry a pleasure you haven’t indulged in for a long while. Again, the gag sounds like an obvious, cheap bit of cutesy funny-bone tickling that ought to be cringe-making and yet somehow isn’t because the actors stay on just the right side of broad.

Some of the structuring devices deployed, like a running gag about a rat, and the way that everything comes full circle at the end, are a bit too by-the-handbook neat and tidy, and rougher edges might have made for a more interesting work. Certainly, the craft contributions are all very clipped and clean, much like Carol herself with her fabulous array of palazzo pants and floaty, perfectly coordinated scarves. But that all makes it very easy and pleasant to watch, like the cinematic equivalent of a warm woolen throw.

Production company: Two Flints
Cast: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, Malin Akerman, Mark Adair-Rios
Director: Brett Haley
Screenwriters: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Producers: Rebecca Green, Laura D. Smith, Brett Haley
Executive producers: Jason Howard, Mary Katherine Crosland, Erik Rommesmo, Jeff Schlossman, Bill Wallwork
Cinematographer: Rob C. Givens
Production designer: Eric Archer
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editor: Brett Haley
Composer: Keegan DeWitt
Casting: Emily Schweber
Sales: Two Flints

No rating, 95 minutes