There’s a touching moment in writer-director Demetri Martin’s Dean during which Robert (Kevin Kline), still haunted by the recent death of his wife, finds himself unable to follow a potential new love interest, a realtor named Carol (Mary Steenburgen), up to her apartment after a successful romantic date. The scene stands out for its emotional poignancy, the air especially trembling with regret on Robert’s end as he realizes just how much he still misses his wife, despite all the effort he’s put into moving on—including selling, with Carol’s help, the house that he and his late wife shared together.
That kind of direct emotion is sorely missing from the rest of Dean, which relegates Robert’s more grounded struggles with grief to the sidelines. Instead, the film is largely about his son, Dean (Martin), who deals with bereavement by basically running away from it—whether filtering it through increasingly morbid line drawings (Dean is a professional illustrator); calling off an engagement with Michelle (Christine Woods), who he only decided to marry to please his dying mother; or taking an impulsive trip to Los Angeles just to avoid arguing with his father about selling the family home.
Through it all, Dean exudes the at once emotionally numb and hipper-than-thou demeanor that brings to mind Zach Braff’s protagonist from Garden State. That’s not a coincidence, as Martin’s film is clearly indebted to Braff’s preciously whimsical comedy in other ways. In Dean, few pass through Martin’s lens without demonstrating some supposedly beguiling quirk that Dean can react to in smugly deadpan fashion: two start-up ad execs who, while interviewing Dean for a job, obsess over Twitter retweets; an old friend, Becca (Briga Heelan), who’s so unhappy with her current relationship that she takes her delusion that Dean has taken an inappropriate romantic pass at her to a ridiculous extreme; a passenger (Kate Berlant) sitting next to Dean on a plane who just won’t shut up despite his obvious gestures of disinterest.
That obnoxiousness is only multiplied by Martin’s visual style. When he’s not filching from both Braff (the indie-folk stylings of Pete Dello and Honeybus in this film recall the Shins songs featured in Garden State) and Woody Allen (much of Dean’s L.A. jaunt is merely a variation on Allen’s own trip to the East Coast in Annie Hall), he clots the screen up with both split-screen images and animated versions of Dean’s own line drawings. Some of the juxtapositions are truly imaginative, especially when Martin puts himself on one half of his widescreen frame and an appropriate-to-the-moment animated line drawing on the other to suggest Dean’s thought processes. But for every expressive bit of technique, there are other moments that seem to exist merely out of directorial self-indulgence, as if Martin’s taste for random quirk is a shield against confronting certain tragicomic emotions head-on.
This is a shame, as Martin does offer up a somewhat fresh take on grief and loss. It’s not just Dean and his father learning to face their traumas rather than escaping them, but also Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who Dean meets in L.A. and develops romantic feelings toward, and who eventually reveals a more troubled personal life than her manic-pixie-dream-girl surface indicates. When Martin makes a concerted effort to face its characters’ pain directly, Dean can be genuinely affecting. Alas, you’ll have to wade your way through a lot of eye-rolling comic marginalia to get to its pained beating heart.