Just when you thought you could retire the adjective “twee,” along comes “Dean,” a film that represents the worst lessons any filmmaker could learn from a steady diet of the works of Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Zach Braff. In the first few minutes, we get a dead mom, the streets of Brooklyn, writer-director-star Demetri Martin’s moptop haircut (and matching hangdog look), and a contemporary song that sounds like a deep cut from The Kinks circa 1968.
So yeah, it’s like that. And if you guessed that the lead character’s well of sadness can only be overcome with a help of a stunningly gorgeous woman, prepare for no surprises whatsoever.
Illustrator Dean (Martin) has lost his mom, and that puts him in a funk. It also fills his moderately-amusing drawings (also by Martin) with images of the grim reaper. Meanwhile, Dean’s dad Robert (Kevin Kline) deals with his grief somewhat proactively, preparing to sell the too-large-for-one family house, even though Dean tries to block this definitive action at every turn.
So reluctant is Dean to go home and clean out his old room that he instead flies to Los Angeles to take a meeting with some boorish web-marketing entrepreneurs who want to use some of his drawings. (Cue some really lazy, one-dimensional gags about advertising, the Internet, and L.A. people that not even the talented Beck Bennett can make come alive.) At a party, Dean meets the luminous Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who finds herself smitten with this dork, even though he immediately knocks over a bunch of cups the moment their eyes meet.
While Dean artificially extends his left-coast sojourn in order to get closer to Nicky, Robert starts spending time with his real estate agent Carol (Mary Steenburgen), as he attempts to gauge just how ready he is to move on after the loss of his wife. Whether it’s Martin’s writing or the superhuman efforts of Kline and Steenburgen, these scenes emerge as the most honest and heartfelt moments of “Dean”; had he ditched the cartoonist and made a movie about a widower and a Realtor, Martin might have been onto something.
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Besides these two seasoned pros, there are some other performances that land: Jacobs gives her thankless male fantasy figure as much of an inner life as she can, and Barry Rothbart inhabits a thoroughly obnoxious lout who shares best-man duties with Dean at a mutual friend’s wedding. Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard (“Master of None”) also does impressive work, from the way he frames the performers to the distinct lighting choices he makes not just to separate New York and Los Angeles but also to distinguish Santa Monica from Silverlake, or Brooklyn from Manhattan.
Ultimately, Dean — and “Dean” — becomes frustrating because of the film’s lack of anything meaningful to say about what should be its focal point: the death of a parent. This is the kind of loss that is devastating in adulthood (many of us know this from experience), but Martin’s script offers neither ideas nor emotions regarding this kind of grief. Dean mopes around until he has one very clunky revelatory conversation with Robert, and that’s about it.
The loss doesn’t hit, and the comedy doesn’t land, leaving “Dean” a wasted opportunity that offers a few talented artists the chance to do fine work in the service of an empty vessel.