Dean is a Dud Well Illustrated

DEAN (2016)
Directed by Demetri Martin
CBS Films, 94 minutes, PG-13 (wicked mild sexuality)

Some ideas are better on paper than put into action. This is literally the case with the movie Dean. Martin's whimsical line drawings appear in the opening titles, final credits, and throughout the film to link scenes to each other or give us insight into Dean's mind. They are, by a wide margin, the best things about the film. In fact, they're about the only good things about it.

Let's start with the fact that Martin casts himself as Dean. In life, Martin is 44, though he sports a Ringo Starr circa 1964 haircut. In the film it's implied he's in his early 30s, but plays his character as if he's an adrift recent college grad. We meet him in Brooklyn, where he's trying to work through grief related to his mother's recent death, a broken engagement, and a major bout of illustrator's block that has caused him to miss several deadlines for his second book. His publisher wants more of the snarky hipster humor of his first book, but all he can come up with are drawings of the Grim Reaper. Things have gotten so bad that he ends up being best man number two at his friend Brett's wedding. The reception goes even worse. In essence, Dean is hollowed out and can't cope with anything more taxing than getting out of bed. This includes spending time with his father, Robert—Kevin Kline as a sensitive New Age Dad—who is seeing a therapist and trying his best to move forward, a plan that probably entails selling the empty nest home in the 'burbs. That's something Dean really doesn't want to discuss.

Dean takes literal flight—to Los Angeles, ostensibly to discuss an advertising deal, but really to avoid making decisions. He tries connecting with a transplanted friend from home, Becca (Briga Heelan), but she's become a serious La-La-Land airhead with a psycho actor boyfriend. Things are no better with old pal Eric (Rory Scovel), who tries to feed Dean pickup lines, though Eric is actually a sad sack himself whose only current significant relationship is with his cat. But wait, there's Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a woman Dean meets at a vacuous California party and there are definite sparks, though lord knows why. In a movie filled with clichés, this one trades in the one in which the romance gets "complicated." Back East, Robert is doing better and has gone on several dates with his realtor, Carol (Mary Steenburgen), though we must get through the obligatory maybe-not-over-my-wife moment.

I don't mean to belittle depression, how hard it is to cope with the loss of a loved one, or how difficult it is to develop meaningful relationships. My brief with Dean is that it plays like a very bad Wes Anderson film that's quirky to no good end. It's too lighthearted to be a dark humor, not funny enough to be a romantic-comedy, and not serious enough to be profound or sad. Characters don't really have motives in Dean—just odd behaviors. Why does Dean act like a guy half his age? Why does Nicky drop everything and immediately run whenever her friend Jill (Ginger Gonzaga) calls? Why do half the characters throw off gay vibes when none are actually gay? More to the point, why does nobody in this film actually do anything? Is forty too early to grow up these days? How do the characters even sustain such obviously expensive lifestyles when none has a discernible income stream? What is this, slackers on trust funds?

Martin directed, wrote, and produced the film, which would make him zero for three as the film is a mess, the script is tacked together with cartoons and music, and the box office was only about a quarter of the budget. In real life, Martin is a decent standup comic, a TV gag writer, a former reoccurring character on The Daily Show, a very good illustrator, and an offbeat musician. You'd not know the last of these from Dean either, as this film has an absolutely lame soundtrack—the sort of shapeless, trite lyrics, occasionally off-key stuff that invites stereotypes about indie music. Were it not for Martin's hysterical illustrations and the fact that no film with Kline or Steenburgen can be without virtue—even when they're just doing a walk through—Dean would take its place in the barnyard with the other turkeys.

If Martin thought his ideas looked good on paper, it's probably because he was looking at his drawings. This is a film you might want to download on a night in which you keep the remote in hand. If you play it right, you can enjoy the cartoons and get the gist of the plot in about 45 minutes.

Rob Weir

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