Demetri Martin stars as the titular Dean, an illustrator who’s having personal and professional difficulties since his mother past away. He’s called off his engagement and is unable to finish his second book; Death keeps popping up in his drawing uninvited. He’s also been avoiding his father, Robert (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda) who wants to sell their childhood home. It’s a familiar setup with familiar characters. Dean is a hip Brooklynite author while Robert is an old fashioned type who just wants him to get a haircut.
In a somewhat extreme attempt to avoid his father, Dean travels to Los Angeles to have a business meeting with ‘creatives’ who want to use his drawings, where he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs, Community), a kindred spirit he thinks might be able to get him out of his funk. Meanwhile, across the country, Robert starts a tentative relationship with his realtor Carol (Mary Steenburgen, The Proposal). Eventually both men come to realize they need to come to terms, both with their loss and with each other.
Chances are, if you’ve seen an indie comedy in the past two or three years, you’ve seen a film like Dean. Martin keeps his low-key weirdness really low-key, delivering a film that feels incredibly familiar. Watching Dean feels a bit like experiencing waves of cinematic déjà vu, which can become distracting. When Dean repeatedly listens to his mother’s old voicemails, I’m not thinking about his character, I’m thinking about where I’ve seen that before.
Martin’s distinct fingerprints are on the film, even if they are faint. Throughout the film we see dozens if not hundred of Dean’s sketches, and some of the film’s most impactful moments are when Martin juxtaposes shots of himself with drawings illustrating his inner feelings. The drawings are simple, almost crude, but they often betray deep and hilarious truths about our inner lives. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that much of the film’s dialog is genuinely funny. The situations may be tired, but the jokes still land, so that’s something.
The film’s cast is strong and Martin holds his own, although it sometimes feels as though his drawings are the film’s actual protagonist. Kevin Kline delivers some of his best work in years, despite working with stale material; there’s something charming about the way he tells his new smartphone to “hold his calls”. Gillian Jacobs continues to solidify her status as indie queen royalty, and Rory Scovel (Ground Floor) steals scenes as Dean’s self-deluded childhood friend who’s very into his cat. Martin’s script contains several hallmarks of a first time feature, mistaking withheld information for suspense. But even so, it’s a rare film that gives actors actual jokes that manage to be actually funny, which, in the end, is the point of a comedy.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Dean is a predictable film, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. Demetri Martin’s debut is absolutely charming with strong performances and some genuinely funny scenes. Its adherence to formula might make the film feel disposable, but even if you forget it the moment you leave the theatre, Dean is a perfectly fine way to spend 90 minutes.