It’s difficult to describe “Dean” with anything more than faint praise. Although its theme seems major — the loss of a parent, in a story written and directed by comedian Demetri Martin, who also stars in the title role — the movie has the feel of a kid’s meal: It’s just a little less of everything.
Be that as it may, “Dean” is a gently amusing, mildly emotional coming-of-(middle-)age movie.
Martin plays Dean, a Brooklyn cartoonist procrastinating on finishing his second book of drawings. The slowdown is due to his mother’s death, an event he hasn’t fully processed.
Dean views his father Robert (Kevin Kline), who lives nearby, with a mix of annoyance and awe, as the older man methodically deals with his own stages of grief. Dean, meanwhile, sits around relistening to old voice mails from his mom and trying to draw, only to have the Grim Reaper show up in nearly every image.
When Robert decides to sell the family home, he asks Dean to help clean out his old bedroom. Unable to face such a task, Dean high-tails it to Los Angeles, using the excuse of a business meeting to press pause on his reality back East. There he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a sarcastic spitfire whom the artist immediately falls for. Suddenly, a short trip becomes a longer one, while Robert keeps busy back home, putting the house on the market and considering starting a relationship of his own with his real estate agent, played by Mary Steenburgen, who’s as charming as ever.
Dean’s painfully clever drawings show up a lot in the movie (courtesy of Martin, who is also a cartoonist). When he’s narrating a scene, they add some visual interest and a dash of eccentricity. The problem is, this type of storytelling has been used before — to better effect — in movies such as “Beginners,” another idiosyncratic romantic drama about parental loss. That movie felt revelatory, however, in every respect that “Dean” feels small.
To its credit, the movie seems aware of its shortcomings — and determined to beat the audience to the punch, calling attention to them first. For example, Martin’s signature physical characteristic is his bowl cut, and Robert makes a point of nagging Dean about his Beatles hair. Dad has a point. Martin’s retro style makes the 44-year-old actor look half his age — and not necessarily in a good way.
Later, a couple of stereotypically insufferable advertising executives, who are interested in using Dean’s art in a commercial, unintentionally belittle his work, calling it simple, and marveling at how it looks like something a child might draw. They’re right, too, although the faux pas doesn’t add much - other than to let us know that Martin is in on the joke.
Made on a shoestring budget, Martin’s directorial debut took years to make it to the screen. Maybe if the process had been faster, the movie wouldn’t feel so familiar. The arrested-development shtick is already over-the-hill at this point. When Robert describes Dean as an adult, “at least numerically,” it’s hard not to sigh and ask yourself: This again? Can’t adults in movies ever act like responsible grown-ups?
Still, “Dean” has its moments. The cast is solid, and the story moves along smoothly. Slight though it may be, it’s a sweet enough tale, while it lasts.
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