Demetri Martin is one of my all-time favourite comedians so when I saw his directorial debut, Dean, was premiering at Tribeca, of course I snatched up a couple of tickets, and it was only when that initial adrenaline rush had dissipated a bit that I started to wonder how the hell his comedy would possibly translate into film.
Demetri Martin is a comedic genius, but his stand-up is mostly one-liners, funny drawings, and some jokes set to an acoustic guitar, and sometimes his harmonica for good measure. Not remotely narrative. And this movie didn’t look much like a comedy anyway – the blurb mentioned death, grief, and existential angst.
Dean (Demetri Martin, of course) has recently lost his mother. He and his father (Kevin Kline) are grieving very differently, and growing slightly apart because of it. His dad is ready to sell the family home but Dean can’t imagine the loss of the place where his mother was last alive, and happy; it’s full of good memories for Dean, but sad memories for his dad. Naturally, instead of sticking around to help with the transition, Dean flees to L.A. ostensibly for business, but we know differently. And he finds lots of distractions in California but starts to learn that he’s not the only walking wounded.
Does Demetri Martin pull it off? Yes, he does. Surprisingly well, as both actor and director. Dean is an illustrator, so not only do Martin’s drawings fit in, they illuminate his inner thoughts. His trademark one-liners are there too but they never feel slotted in. They either feel organic or they’ve been left on the cutting room floor – if you know his stand-up at all, you can’t help but feel that Martin has wisely shown restraint here. And there are visual gags, very subtle, but they add a layer that knock down the seriousness just a tad (like you never doubt how genuinely bereft Kevin Kline is, but you keep a half-smile for his terrible dad jeans). For a movie primarily about loss, you’ll laugh out loud an awful lot.
The first and maybe only misstep I felt was when he arrives in L.A. and meets his love interest, played by Gillian Jacobs. Gillian Jacobs is not really a problem, except that I know her through the Judd Apatow-produced Netflix series, Love (in which she co-stars with Paul Rust, the dude who cowrote the new Pee-wee Herman movie). Sean and I watched the whole season even though we detested both leads. Not the actors, per se, but the characters are just awful human beings and it’s hard to forgive the actors for that. So I’m carrying around this chip on my shoulder for Gillian Jacobs and was not super happy to bump into her in this movie. But clever Demetri Martin won me over by writing a love interest for Dean who did not exist solely for his pursuit. She had back story. She had depth. She was a person. This sounds weird, I’ll grant you that, but so often in movies the love interest exists solely to be adored and consumed and nothing else. She has no job or apartment or opinions. Gillian Jacobs had scenes without Demetri Martin. She was independent of his lust. It was refreshing even if it did make me confront my hostility toward the bitch from Love.
Eventually Dean returns to New York, to his widowed (widowered?) father and the ghost of his mother. Demetri Martin lost his own father 20 years ago, so he knows grief, but he didn’t quite know how to approach the father-son relationship between two grown men. If he struggled with the relationship on paper, it doesn’t show on screen. The moments of quiet reflection between them are some of the film’s most satisfying.
I enjoyed this film very much and it turns out I wasn’t the only one – it won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca from a jury including Tangerine’s Mya Taylor and funny lady Jennifer Westfeldt, who commented: “We have had the great privilege of seeing ten accomplished and ambitious films over the last seven days here at Tribeca. But we all fell in love with this film. It manages the near impossible task of breathing new life into a well-worn genre, balancing humor and pathos with an incredibly deft touch, and offering a unique perspective on the way we process loss.” Even more excitingly, it was bought! CBS films picked it up, which means this little indie will soon be making its way to a theatre near you.