Directorial debuts are often more personal than what follows, and in the best cases play to the director's strengths. Lucky for us, that is the case with comedian Demetri Martin's first film, Dean, in which he also stars as the titular character who is not so unlike Martin himself: a New York cartoonist who draws funny illustrations in the style of Martin's standup.
Dean's mother has recently passed away, and his father (Kevin Kline) and he are struggling to find a way to pick up their lives and move on. Dean has broken up with his fiancé and is having trouble completing the cartoons for his next book; all of his drawings are extremely dark, and the grim reaper keeps popping up in nearly every illustration. Meanwhile, his father is selling their house against Dean's wishes, and might be falling for his realtor (Mary Steenburgen). Dean decides to take a trip to L.A. to avoid his dreary situation and meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), but things don't turn out as sunny as he hopes as he finds he must return to New York to reconcile with his father and move on.
The film shows many of the signs of a new filmmaker, in both good and bad ways. On the good side, the playful and unique editing often works very well and makes the film stand out among the pack of similar stories. Dean's illustrations are often used in split screen to portray his feelings at a given moment, and split screens are used occasionally to show the parallels between Dean and his father. Even the on screen representations of text messages are done in illustration, which is a nice touch. With every risk, however, comes some mistakes, and there were definitely a few made in the editing room. There are several moments when it feels like they weren't sure how to fill a gap in time, so there's just a close up of Martin's face that feels shoehorned in, or perhaps left in inadvertently from an earlier cut. Nevertheless, the score on this front leaves Dean ahead, with more that works for the film than doesn't.
What I found most surprising about the film is its earnestness. The way it deals with the look and feel of depression after a loss is quite real, and at times nearly heartbreaking. The familial relationship and the way that can change in the face of loss is portrayed well, and the chemistry between the three central characters is a testament to Martin's burgeoning directing abilities. I was also very pleased to see that Nicky is not romanticized as the manic pixie dream girl (unlike Portman in Garden State, a film that this will be compared to in nearly every review you'll read), but instead comes with a host of her own complexities and issues.
My only real complaint with the film is the imbalance of the two stories; while dean is clearly the main character, Kline's character gets enough screen time to be important but not enough to make a significant impact on the story. You get the feeling that initially the story was fifty-fifty about both of them, but at some point they decided to commit more to the younger character's side. I would've liked to have learned more about the father and seen more specifically how his wife's death affected him, but instead his story feels almost tacked on.
As a comedic drama, Dean works quite well, and is a surprisingly solid first effort from Martin. While it may come across as too precious for some viewers, most of the comedic bits are spot on and fairly clever. Take the growing weirdness of Eric's (Rory Scovel) obsession with his cat after Dean discovers the room full of cat towers in the bedroom of the seemingly confident and together friend. It's a worthwhile film that might surprise you with its heart, and I'm interested to see where Martin's career takes him next.
Dean is directed by Demetri Martin and stars Martin, Kevin Kline, and Gillian Jacobs. It opened at the Tribeca Film Festival and will play in theaters on June 2nd, 2017.