In ‘Dean,’ Demetri Martin makes misfortune a winning, grinning treat

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Demitri Martin (left) and Kevin Kline in “Dean.” | CBS Films

“I always like Michelle. You guys were great together.”

“Yeah, well. You should see us apart.” – Father and son discussing the son’s ex-fiance in “Dean.”

Demetri Martin’s “Dean” produced as many smiles as any movie I’ve seen this year.

I smiled in recognition of the relationship dynamics, whether it was a budding romance, an uncomfortable encounter with an ex, a longtime bromance or the sometimes bumpy tug-of-war between father and grown son.

I smiled at the smart and funny dialogue.

I smiled because it’s a treat to see such a talented and versatile sketch comedian, supporting actor, TV host and stand-up branch out even more as the writer-director-star of a terrific film that has echoes of Woody Allen’s romantic comedy/drama work from the 1970s and 1980s, as well as more recent films such as Zach Braff’s “Garden State” and the sharp and knowing indie films from Joe Swanberg.

Martin wisely plays to his strengths as Dean, an illustrator who specializes in sparse, New Yorker-type drawings. (Dean’s cartoons pop up from time to time as a commentary on developments in his life. Even text message exchanges are illustrated as simple pencil sketches. Pretty neat.)

Dean has a mop of hair that makes him look like the lead singer in a cover band specializing in mid-1960s pop groups such as the Monkees. His father Robert (the always brilliant Kevin Kline) inevitably greets him not with “Hello son,” but with, “You need a haircut.”

To say this is not a great time for Dean would be a massive understatement. He’s still coping with the death of his mother. He recently broke things off with his fiancé, but now he’s wondering if he’ll ever do better. His former roommate is getting married, and Dean is the best man — well, actually, the second best man out of the two best men in the wedding party.

It’s Movie Law that grown children of a widowed parent will be shocked when said parent announces intentions to sell the house where the kids grew up. When Robert tells Dean he’s putting the place on the market because it’s too big, Dean sputters, “Can’t you just cover the furniture in some of the rooms and maybe close the doors?” Robert replies, “What — like a countess?”

At best spinning his wheels in New York, Dean heads to L.A. at the invitation of his old pal Eric (Rory Scovel, terrific). The “Annie Hall” comparisons are obvious as Dean flounders about Los Angeles as the classic Fish Out of Water now living Near the Water.

Gillian Jacobs sparkles as a romantic interest for Dean who is harboring a pretty major secret. Meanwhile, back in New York, Robert is tentatively exploring a possible relationship with his real estate agent, played by Mary Steenburgen (his co-star in “Life as a House” some 15 years ago and also in 2013’s “Last Vegas”). Their relationship is worthy of a movie unto itself.

Writer-director Martin does a stellar job of balancing sketch-comedy style laughs with genuinely touching moments. A confrontation with a “guy from that vampire TV show” at an art gallery is hilarious, but a small moment when Dean’s cell phone pings a reminder that says simply, “Mom’s birthday,” is heartbreaking. (Think of all the smart phone and Google Calendar and Facebook birthday and anniversary reminders that pop up after we’ve lost a loved one. What was once a friendly techno-nudge becomes an unwelcome emotional shot to the heart.)

“Dean” left me eagerly anticipating Martin’s next projects.

Also, Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen should share screen time in at least one movie a year, and we’d all be the better for it.


CBS Films presents a film written and directed by Demetri Martin. Rated PG-13 (for language and some suggestive material). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

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