Film Review: Dean

Nice performances by Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen in an otherwise uninspired movie that explores a father and son’s disparate expressions of grief when wife/mom dies.
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Grief is a trendy topic and, far more frightening, a trendy experience. You gain a certain cachet when you grieve, really grieve. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross got the ball rolling in 1969 with her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, which introduced the world to the five stages of grief. Now almost half a century later, we all talk about the “process” of dying; the “cycle” of grief; the need for “support”; and the inevitability of “closure” (whatever the hell that is).

More jargon has entered the vernacular and to let you know how true it all is, the ubiquitous Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead) has recently joined the fold—she has both grieved and shared—with her memoir on the unexpected death of her beloved husband and coping with its aftermath, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resolve, and Finding Joy. She even landed on the cover of Time magazine for her revelations.

Like many profound life experiences, bereavement has become popularized on the self-help book shelves, talk-show circuits and naturally the large and small screen. Occasionally, it’s handled with nuance (e.g., TV’s “Mr. Robot” or Fred Schepisi’s The Last Orders or even Sidney Lumet’s 1968 comedy Bye, Bye Braverman), but usually its depiction is sensationalized and/or trite and banal.

Remember Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) howling into the quarry following his mother’s death in Garden State? Talk about adolescent solipsism gussied up as existential angst; or, worse, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, exploring the lives of two soldiers charged with delivering the worst possible news to the spouses, parents, children of troops killed in battle. This one, also attempting to make big statements, evoked an acting-class exercise as a stream of actors dramatized the various ways one can respond to death of a loved one, from deadened stares to inaudible gasps to raging disbelief to the old standby, lots of tear-streaked faces. “Look, Ms. Acting Teacher, I’m weeping.”

In all fairness writer/director/comedian Demetri Martin’s Dean is not remotely as unendurable. It’s just tired and uninteresting. At a recent screening, Martin self-effacingly welcomed the reviewers, gently reminding them that the film was a maiden-effort indie done on spec and autobiographical. He urged the audience to feel free to laugh. After all, its tagline says, “A comedy about a tragedy.” Best known as a standup comic and sketch comedian (he does indeed draw sketches), Martin was apologizing ahead of time (not a good sign) and regrettably he had reason to do so.

Here, a troubled father-son relationship disintegrates even further as thirty-something Dean (Martin) and his dad Robert (Kevin Kline) find they are unable to jointly mourn the death of Dean’s mom/Robert’s wife. A retired engineer, Robert takes a rational and pragmatic approach, clearing out her belongings from their Brooklyn brownstone and sprucing up the house for sale. He has retained the services of a realtor, Carol (Mary Steenburgen), and consulted a psychiatrist to help him move forward with his life.

Illustrator Dean is immobilized. He is upset by his father’s rush to sell his childhood home yet unable to say anything. Instead, he fritters away his time doodling childlike sketches featuring the grim reaper and/or other deathly images as if viewed through the eyes of a pre-pubescent in the throes of arrested development.

Neurosis is his calling card. He fails to meet his book deadlines and misses his ex, whom he unaccountably broke up with following his mom’s death. He also suffers from nut allergies, specifically almonds.

Martin has made every effort to fashion an immediately recognizable title character for whom the viewer feels empathy, and to the extent that Dean is indisputably a type, we know he has succeeded: Woody Allen meets The Graduate.  

Clichés out of iconic scripts abound. The second and more serious problem is that Allen-esque maladjustments coupled with the inarticulate bewilderment of Dustin Hoffman’s Braddock don’t have any traction today. The behavior simply feels dated and, well, unappealing.

Credibility-free scenes don’t help. At the wedding reception of close friends, Dean has a full-blown meltdown, verbally assaulting everyone in his bungled attempt to toast the newlyweds. He is ostensibly enraged at the sight of his former girlfriend having a good time at the wedding and the fact that he, Dean, is not “the” best man, but one of two best men. But here’s the subtext: His infantile temper tantrum is an explosion of suppressed, unacknowledged grief over his deceased mom.

Following the wedding debacle, he heads off to Los Angeles to interview for a job at an advertising/marketing dot.com start-up. It’s his first in a series of picaresque encounters awash in “in” allusions, including his flirtation with a half-wit actress chirping away about the joys of improvisation. Her improv references are meaningless to the uninitiated and even less entertaining to those who are. Her boyfriend, who plays a vampire on a TV series, seems to believe he is one.

After several equally unfunny L.A. misadventures, Dean meets the girl of his dreams (Gillian Jacobs) and on a whim decides to stay in L.A. permanently. In short order the romance goes south and he returns home, now forced to face his father and his unresolved grief that has allegedly informed all of his irresponsible, ill-advised actions.

Far more successfully drawn is Robert’s budding relationship with his realtor Carol, both of whom want to make a connection with each other but can’t. The ghost of Robert’s late wife is too present and his pain is palpable when he apologizes to Carol, “I’m married.” Carol’s loss—and Steenburgen’s subtle performance hints that there have been a few—resonates even more. The chemistry between the two actors is evident and they make a likeable couple who’ve been around the block a few times, but can still feel the spark of attraction. If only the story had been about them.

But that wouldn’t have been this schematic film zeroing in on the disparate ways two men tackle grief. Martin is surely in tune with our collective bereavement obsession that has opened the door to a whole new profession beyond filmmakers spewing forth scripts about mourning.

Just ask any school-age youngster in an academy where someone has kicked it. Grief counselors are quickly trotted in ready to provide bromides to those few who may welcome it or, more likely, to the vast majority who’d rather be left alone and no longer feel free to admit it—not if they want to be part of the popular clique, that is. I’d love to see a movie about that. Where’s Mel Brooks when we need him most?

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