The challenge of finding pleasure, companionship and personal fulfillment in one’s twilight years gets thoroughly pleasant, poignant screen treatment in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a sweetly handled romantic dramedy that has the great virtue of featuring Blythe Danner in an all-too-rare leading role. As a Los Angeles widow making room in her solitary existence for two new friendships, each one holding out the possibility of something more, Danner makes an elegant, warmly sympathetic heroine in this sometimes broadly played but always tender and appealing effort. Writer-director Brett Haley’s second feature (after 2010’s “The New Year”) breaks no new ground but has all the trappings of a modest crowdpleaser, if properly marketed toward the older audiences who turned “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” into a sizable specialty hit.
When her dog becomes ill and has to be put down, retired schoolteacher Carol Petersen (Danner) becomes more acutely aware of the loneliness that has slipped into her comfortable yet unvaried routine. She spends much of her time playing cards and gossiping with her three best friends— played with appreciable sass by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place — who encourage her to put herself back on the market, even if it means subjecting herself to the cringe-inducing experience of speed dating (in one of the film’s earlier gags). Carol, after all, still has her looks and her figure, as a handsome passerby named Bill (Sam Elliott) notes with undisguised admiration. Though she hasn’t even thought about seeing anyone since her husband died 20 years ago, Carol allows herself to accept the man’s compliment — and, later, an invitation to lunch.
But initially, at least, Carol seems to forge a similarly promising if far less conventional connection with Lloyd (Martin Starr), the much younger man hired to clean her swimming pool. While you can rest assured that sly metaphor will be milked for maximum comic effect down the road, there’s nothing here that will offend delicate sensibilities (well, except maybe the ugly in-house rodent that keeps skittering out into the open and frightening Carol out of her wits, a recurring source of comic alarm). Her sweet odd-couple bond with Lloyd, lubricated by many glasses of wine, emerges not just from loneliness but from a mutual sense of vague discontent with the idea that this might be all that life has to offer.
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Lloyd, as played by Starr with his typically awesome deadpan-nerd appeal, once aspired to be a poet, but now lives at home with his mom and does menial work for a living. Carol’s life, although not without its satisfactions, has also seen its fair share of compromises, including the premature interruption of a promising singing career. Music naturally becomes a shared outlet for both of them, starting with a karaoke night where Carol’s quavering yet still beautiful voice impresses the crowd, and building to a final passage that makes the meaning of the film’s title movingly clear.
Presented with a level of polish that belies its low, Kickstarter-funded budget, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” works well enough as a smooth, emotionally effective blend of easy, generous laughs and lovely romantic interludes — grounded at every step by Danner’s calmly radiant, deeply felt performance, in which we see Carol emerging into greater awareness of the uncertainty of the future and the importance of appreciating every fleeting moment. And indeed, Haley and Marc Basch’s script is nothing if not a succession of moments to savor, where what matters isn’t the fairly predictable narrative destination so much as the simple pleasure of spending time in these characters’ company.
A little of that company can admittedly go a long way where Carol’s friends are concerned. Mercifully, the requisite old-biddies-getting-high gag makes for a genuinely amusing scene rather than the eye-rolling cliche it could have been, due in part to Squibb’s crack delivery (crack being an adjective in that instance) and Perlman and Place’s equally sharp timing. As for Carol’s scenes with Lloyd and especially Elliott’s Bill — courting her with a twinkle in his eye that’s at once randy, affectionate and deeply sincere — they’re suffused with such effortless, free-flowing chemistry that they never feel like time wasted.
Malin Akerman makes a mid-film appearance as Carol’s daughter, Katherine, who stops by L.A.to pay her mother a visit. Their scenes together are brief, but quite revealing of the ways in which even thoughtful, loving children can often take their parents for granted. In placing the viewer’s identification entirely with Carol — and giving the perpetually underexposed Danner a richly deserved showcase, her best since her impressive supporting turn in 2012’s “Hello I Must Be Going” — Haley’s film emerges an appreciable exception to the rule that Hollywood has no place for women of a certain age. Call it conventional filmmaking, perhaps, but it could hardly be considered the norm.