Demetri Martin has been turning in solid work as a comedy writer for nearly a decade and a half. He’s done the rounds on virtually every late-night talk show, from The Daily Show to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, not to mention own sketch series, Important Things with Demetri Martin. A surreal comedian to say the least, Martin is known for incorporating drawings and music into his material. He brings that trademark offbeat wit to his directorial debut, Dean, mixing deadpan humor with a melancholy atmosphere.
In addition to writing and directing, Martin also plays the titular character. Dean is an illustrator that appears to be in his 30s, although in real life Martin is miraculously in his early 40s. Following the death of his mother, Dean isn’t sure how to deal with the grief or what to do with his life. His father (Kevin Kline) is finally ready to move on, telling Dean that he’s selling their old house. Unable to face reality, Dean escapes to Los Angeles where he has a series of misadventures, most notably an encounter with a woman named Nicky (Gillian Jacobs).
Martin’s film has echoes of various other comedies, especially the works of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. There’s even a bit of Zach Braff’s Garden State in there. The tone is laidback and doesn’t rely on a three-act structure. It’s basically just following this guy on an emotional journey and sometimes that’s really all you need. Even if Dean isn’t the most expressive character, we still identify with his loss and state of uncertainty. What’s more, Martin’s script does a strong job at balancing uncomfortable humor with a genuine sense of tragedy.
As far as movies about grief so, Dean isn’t in the same league of Manchester by the Sea or A Monster Calls. It’s also far from the first film to combine laughs and heavy subject matter. While it falls short of a dramedy like 50/50 or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Martin’s film mostly hits its target, coming off as whimsical and downbeat simultaneously. Martin additionally leaves his signature as a filmmaker, working in a hipster soundtrack and drawings galore.
Since Dean is an illustrator, Martin is able to weave a lot of his own sketches into the movie’s narrative. His art calls the likes of Shel Silverstein and Saul Steinberg to mind, coming off as simple while also being quirky, bittersweet, and inventive. It might actually be fun to see Martin helm an animated feature in the future. He already provides the voice of Ice Bear on We Bare Bears. Maybe he could join forces with that same animation team. Until then, Dean lays down a solid foundation for Martin’s career behind the camera.
Check out our interview with Demetri Martin here.