Stand-up comedy, by its very nature, is a self-involved activity, requiring the type of personality that doesn’t always translate well to narrative film. I’m thinking specifically of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s two films as a writer-director – the first about a comedian who sleepwalks (psst, Mike has), and the second about comic performers in a comedy troupe. They say it’s best to write what you know, but there’s not a lot of scope there outside of the World of Birbiglia.
It’s easy to picture Demetri Martin, with his intelligent emo wit and distinctive look, falling into that same navel-gazing rut with his directorial debut, Dean. But he doesn’t. In fact, Dean enjoys an easy storytelling that indicates a style Martin could translate to future, less personal work.
Yes, Martin plays the title character. No, he’s not a comedian. He’s a brilliant one-panel cartoonist – okay, yes, the drawings are Martin’s – with his own book and enough of a cushion to live decently well in Brooklyn. But Dean’s drawings and sensibilities are a little twisted since his mom’s passing, as he simultaneously attempts to manage his own grief and his strained relationship with his Dad, Robert (Kevin Kline, playing a mourning father with exactly the charm and pathos you’d expect Kevin Kline to exude playing a mourning father).
The early sequences between Dean and Robert are surprisingly good – short and revelatory, even with Martin occasionally overselling his sense of humor in the script. Kline, about as generous as an actor could be, defers some of the scenes’ smarts to his co-star, looking a bit the fool. But Dean spends a fine amount of time later focused on Robert’s attempts to sell his home, his budding friendship with a real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), and his willingness to push ahead without his son’s approval.
The most enjoyable and satisfying aspect of Dean may sound trite, but it works: a romance between the main character and a woman he meets during an escape to California. At a party in which he makes a slapstick fool of himself (we can lose that old joke, thanks), Dean meets the lovely, lively Nicky (Gillian Jacobs, star of the brutally annoying series, Love). Martin doesn’t set up standard tricks, like some obvious contradiction between the two, or a stack of false, witty banter. Instead, he spends time crafting a romantic energy between the two, smart enough to let the more talented Jacobs take the lead. When it is time for the characters to reveal moments of their lives to each other, it’s not overplayed or overdramatic, making it even easier to root for these two, at the very least, to remain bi-coastal friends.
At times, Martin’s development of his title character is too orchestrated, artificially pushing for depth. But Martin’s script and acting ability give Dean plenty of unlikable flaws, a surefire way to make a nice character seem deeper. And the cartoons give an instant insight to Dean’s thinking – the accompanying voiceover is unnecessary, but the device is appealing.
Maybe working on films by Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) and Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) had a positive effect on Martin the director, because he makes plenty of good decisions with Dean. Enough to show off his talents without showing off.