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Dean is Demetri Martin’s Garden State. A mother passing away, a happy/sad indie soundtrack, prickliness between father and son—in these ways, the two films are beat by beat. Yet although Dean sometimes leans towards preciousness, it never fully blossoms as twee.
That’s because Martin’s humor isn’t affected. It’s just low-key. In his feature debut as a writer-director, the comedian plays the titular character, a New York artist who’s not making progress on his second book because he’s still processing his mother’s death. He’s also getting over a breakup with a woman who’s still part of his circle of friends. And when he reluctantly meets with his father, Robert (Kevin Kline, whose turn is somewhat Bill Murray-ish), he’s told to get a haircut and questioned about what he’s doing with his life.
The only time Dean isn’t in an awkward situation is when he’s drawing. You may have seen Martin’s simple sketches in his comedy shows, such as Important Things With Demetri Martin. They’re gently absurd: A half black, half white horse titled “Zebra (reconstructed),” for instance, or a man parachuting into an open grave. They increasingly become an elegant way of showing, not telling, how Dean is feeling.
After his friend’s disastrous wedding at which he was one of two best men and his ex was one of the bridesmaids—there’s a bumbling scene here with the ring along with an unpleasant reveal that’s Chaplin-esque—Dean decides to finally go to L.A. to take a meeting with some executives who want to use his drawings. He went purely as an excuse to avoid his father, and his initial instinct that this wasn’t something he wanted to do proves correct: The company’s hyped-up execs have mini treadmills at their computers and use non-words such as “transformifies.” Dean walks out in the middle of the meeting, and between that experience and his time at a party attended by L.A.-types who might as well have been alien beings, he sketches a picture of many giant people next to a single tiny one.
Naturally, there’s a love interest: Nicky (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), who Dean meets at the party despite embarrassing himself and then goes to sometimes extreme lengths to see. Their romance is sweet, and Martin gives Jacobs her share of funny lines, a sense of humor that makes the pair a believable match—even if her character is essentially a trope of the perfect girl cheering up the depressed dude.
Ultimately, though, Dean’s plot is too featherweight to leave a lasting impression. What you’ll remember are the lighthearted bits, such as Martin’s use of subtitles when Dean and a friend talk in a club, drawn text messages, or Robert trying to dismiss a call on his new phablet by telling the screen, in a raised voice, that he’s at a restaurant. Yes, the story is rooted in grief, but it’s too easily forgotten as the rest of Dean’s life goes on. Martin may be great at sketches, but it takes more than sewing together a series of them to make a memorable movie.
Dean opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.