Explaining why he just bought himself a yacht, Bill (Sam Elliott), the sexy septuagenarian whose arrival at a retirement community creates a stir, tells Carol (Blythe Danner) that he can’t understand people who wedge themselves into a rut after retirement and stay there until they die. Carol simply listens, no longer sure where she stands on the subject. Since her husband died 20 years ago, she’s been living just the sort of life Bill is sneering at, so she’s well aware that there are far worse ways to pass the time than reading the morning paper by the pool in your L.A. bungalow, playing bridge or golf several times a week with your best friends, or settling into bed with your pet and a glass of wine to watch some TV before falling asleep. On the other hand, a series of small but seismic changes in her life—the death of her dog, a budding friendship with the sensitive young man, Lloyd (Martin Starr), who cleans her pool, and Bill’s unexpected interest in her—is altering her longstanding routine and making her wonder if she wants to spend the rest of her life doing essentially the same thing every day.
Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams attempts to find a balance between the stimulatingly new and the comfortably familiar. Highly polished yet never quite slick, the film devolves now and then into cartoonish cutesiness with its broadly drawn minor characters, as in a heavy-handed sequence in which Carol and her girlfriends get high on Sally’s (Rhea Perlman) medical marijuana and then behave like superannuated teenagers, buying a ridiculous mound of munchies (literally a shopping cartful) and giggling profusely when they’re detained by a hunky young cop on their way home. Worse, the montage of painfully bad moments from Carol’s encounters with speed dating is a tired trope that doesn’t feel any fresher just because everyone partaking in the process is old enough to qualify for Medicare.
But the three main actors’ emotional authenticity keeps the story from drowning in unfunny shtick or facile wish-fulfillment. Elliott’s Bill is the retirement community’s most eligible bachelor not only because of his Marlboro-Man-gone-silver good looks, but also due to a winning mix of gentlemanly gravity and squinty-eyed sass. Starr gives Carol’s introverted pool-boy pal a dignified, slightly gun-shy reserve that shields an underlying warmth and unobtrusive attentiveness, making their friendship plausible despite the gap in ages. At the heart of it all is Danner, whose lithe bearing, expressive eyes, and slightly wry line readings imbue Carol with a vitality and restless intelligence that make it easy to read her thoughts and emotions, even in the somewhat routine-deadened state in which we first encounter her.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is more evidence of the ways in which baby boomers keep transforming the culture to fit their needs, even as they age. More and more, in films ranging from rom-coms to hardcore action thrillers, AARP-generation actors are getting the kinds of starring roles that Hollywood almost never bestowed on people—especially women—past their mid 30s. Like most of the vehicles for older actors, this one is a solid piece of Hollywood workmanship, leavening a moderate amount of realism with a hefty helping of escapism.