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'Dean' explores the relationship between humor and grief

Posted July 1

Demetri Martin in “Dean.” (Deseret Photo)

“DEAN” — 2½ stars — Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Rory Scovel, Mary Steenburgen; PG-13 (language and some suggestive material); Broadway

Early in “Dean,” the 30-something protagonist is at a public library when a child walks by wearing his same sweater. At another point, the protagonist’s father wryly comments that his son “is an adult … numerically.” In a way, “Dean” is a portrait of a generation that has struggled to let go of the “young” part of the term “young men.” But mostly, “Dean” is about a father and son coming to grips with the loss of the woman who brought them together.

Demetri Martin plays Dean, a New York cartoonist whose work has taken a dark turn ever since his mother’s death. He’s broken his engagement to his girlfriend, Michelle (Christine Woods), and even at supposedly happy occasions — like a best man’s speech at his best friend’s marriage — Dean just can’t seem to have things break his way.

Dean’s father, Robert (Kevin Kline), is dealing with his grief in his own way: by selling the family’s longtime home in Brooklyn. Dean and his father were never very close, and the possibility of no longer having the family home strains their relationship even further. On the upside — at least for Robert — a pretty real estate agent named Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is offering some romantic light at the end of the grief tunnel.

Determined to get away from his problems, Dean accepts his friend Eric's (Rory Scovel) offer to visit him across the country in Los Angeles. But after a few West Coast missteps — including a discouraging meeting with a tech startup that wants to use Dean’s cartoons in its ad campaign — Dean is just about to return home in defeat when he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) at a party.

Nicky is a grounded breath of fresh air compared with the shallow social climbers surrounding Dean, and even though she always seems to have her rude friend Jill (Ginger Gonzaga) in tow, Dean decides to skip his flight home and stick around for a while.

Dean and Robert have been lonely for a long time, and there’s nothing like the potential for a new relationship to offer a little hope. “Dean” definitely has an element of romantic comedy, and with standup veteran Martin in the protagonist role (he also wrote and directed the film), there are plenty of funny moments scattered through the film’s 94-minute run time.

At the same time, “Dean” isn’t really a date movie, and the machinations of its plot have a lot more to do with Dean and Robert’s relationship than anything else. “Dean” has some very tender elements and will have a lot to say for anyone who is dealing with — or has ever dealt with — the death of a loved one.

It’s an interesting fit for Martin, whose inventive illustration-based comedy has always come with a fun deadpan flavor. Early on, there’s almost a Woody Allen quality to “Dean,” and for the first half-hour you almost feel as if you are watching a 21st-century incarnation of the famed New York comic ranting against the way technology has taken over our lives.

There’s also a sense that, even though “Dean’s” various elements work on their own, that the complete film still hasn’t quite come together. Some elements — like the aforementioned wedding meltdown — feel a little forced, and “Dean” often feels as if it’s still searching for its own meaning.

It may not be the first movie you run off to the theater to see — probably not on a first date, anyway — but its high points are high enough to justify a look.

“Dean" is rated PG-13 for language and some suggestive material; running time: 94 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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