Familiar as a stand-up performer, a “Daily Show” correspondent, the host of his own Comedy Central show, a musician, a supporting player and a sketch comedian (in that he literally draws sketches), Demetri Martin adds “writer-director” to his resume with “Dean,” which finds his characteristic slightness both a virtue and a liability. Martin stays within his comfort zone as a New York-based illustrator still processing his mother’s death, but the tyro helmer struggles to square his distinct minimalist charm with the second-hand influence of standard-bearers like Woody Allen and Wes Anderson.
An ace supporting cast, led by Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen helps carry his observations on love and grief, but this East Coast/West Coast melan-comedy can’t quite escape the long shadow of “Annie Hall.” Distribution seems certain after this handsome, assured production bows at Tribeca, even if the hope for another “Garden State” phenomenon appears dim.
That said, the film’s Zach Braffian ambitions are apparent from the very first scene, in which the writer-director-star stages a seriocomic exchange in a graveyard while a twee indie-folk song carries into the credits. (“Garden State” had The Shins. “Dean” has the music of Pete Dello and Honeybus.)
Dean (Martin) and his father Robert (Kline) are mourning the death of Dean’s mother, whose passing nearly a year earlier has continued to haunt them both. While his more practical father has tried to move forward by seeing a therapist and putting the family home up for sale, Dean has been spinning his wheels, moping around the city as one deadline after another passes on his latest book of sketches.
Dean heads out to Los Angeles, ostensibly to interview for work at a noxious dot-com outfit, but he’s really seeking a change of scenery. (In a Woody-esque touch, he’s allergic to the almond water they offer him.) He hangs out with his only good L.A. friend, Eric (fellow comedian Rory Scovel), and shortly before his flight back to New York, he connects with Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) at a party and opts to extend his stay indefinitely.
Meanwhile, his father strikes up a relationship of his own with Carol (Mary Steenburgen), the real estate agent who’s putting the family home on the market. In both cases, father and son are eager to start over with appealing new women, but the ache of their loss, along with a slew of other complications, makes it difficult to turn the page.
All told, “Dean” is just the latest addition to the pile of offbeat comedies about arrested development. “He’s an adult now, at least numerically,” Robert laments to Carol when talking about his son, whose sketches have the crude simplicity of a child’s drawing. Martin’s man-child wanderings through the City of Angels makes for some good fish-out-of-water comedy and gives him some separation from Allen’s more advanced neuroses when visiting L.A. in “Annie Hall.” Nicky generously scoops him up like a lost puppy, disarmed as much by his pitiable earnestness as any evident intelligence and charm.
Martin’s gentle deadpan yields a smattering of laughs, but “Dean” does better when its emotional underpinnings are addressed straight on. Robert and Carol’s relationship gets far less screen time than that of the younger duo, but Kline and Steenburgen make a sweet, tender and enormously appealing couple, each suggesting the wariness of experience, but also the excitement of finding someone new at an advanced age. The core insight of “Dean” — that mourning periods are often longer and more complicated than people expect — comes through strongest in their pairing.
Too often, however, Martin doodles around the problem, much as his character dodges his true feelings by inserting the Grim Reaper into every one of his illustrations. The random comic episodes and marginalia in “Dean” start to accumulate: A nightclub scene with funny subtitles (another “Annie Hall” nod), Dean and Eric peeling dirt bikes around the Sixth Street Viaduct to Wes Anderson slo-mo, a subplot involving the other Best Man at his friend’s wedding. Dean learns he can’t kick important issues down the road indefinitely. Martin the filmmaker could stand to do likewise.