Comedian-actor Demetri Martin shakes up the indie formula with ‘DEAN’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

DEAN
Rated R, 87 minutes.
Director: Demetri Martin
Cast: Demetri MartinKevin Kline, Gillian JacobsMary Steenburgen and Florence Marcisak

Sometimes an independently produced dramatic comedy looks like “Indie: The Movie,” seemingly containing all the bits we’re used to seeing from the genre: hand-drawn animation throughout, awkward characters played by lesser-known actors, music that sounds like it was ripped from the GARDEN STATE soundtrack and an aesthetic that tries to recreate what Woody Allen did in the ’70s.

However, some talents are gifted enough to take those familiar ingredients and shape them into an original film. Filmmaker Marc Webb did in 2009 with (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, and now comedian-actor Demetri Martin does it with his outstanding directorial debut, titled DEAN.

In the film, Martin portrays Dean, a Brooklyn cartoonist who, after a year, is still processing the death of his mother (Florence Marcisak). While he appears to be holding together, on the inside his pain is picking away at his stability. He releases much of his hurt in his work, often drawing illustrations of the Grim Reaper popping in and out of his daily life.

His father, engineer Robert (a great Kevin Kline), decides to put the family home on the market as a way to better help him move on from the loss of his wife. This decision doesn’t sit well with Dean, which sends him on an escapist trip to Los Angeles in hope of finding work in advertising. But in typical indie fashion, a love interest comes in to alter the course of our central character. In this case, it’s Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a likable woman whom Dean connects with at a friend’s party. The two hit it off immediately through moments of honesty and embarrassment, leaving Dean to wonder if going back to New York is what he should do.

“As I conceived the movie, I wanted it to be at its core a story of a father and son who are going through the same loss, but for each of them it’s different,” said Martin when we talked on the phone recently. “I thought by telling parallel stories there might be a much larger and more interesting story of grief.”

Gillian Jacobs and Demetri Martin star in ‘DEAN.’ Courtesy of CBS Films.

All too often in indie films, parents are sidelined and simply exist to aid the main character as they go through some kind of struggle. However, Martin makes Dean’s father just as essential to the narrative as Dean.

“The idea of being single doesn’t get any easier, no matter the reason or how old you are. Just because you’re older, doesn’t mean you get good at it,” Martin said. “We see two guys going through the same thing, but they aren’t really communicating about it.”

Curiously it’s the viewer who serves as the third person in Dean and Robert’s struggle, as we have access to both characters without them accessing each other. This approach allows audiences to better relate to the complexity of their situation.

“When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking of gearing it for any audience in particular. It was just a personal story,” Martin said. “I lost a parent when I was young and my family went through a lot. I never thought, ‘Oh, older crowds will like this.’ I just wanted people to identify with it.”

Aside from the story’s candor, it’s the comedy that makes DEAN such a special experience. Most of the laughs come from Dean’s character, who is not afraid to speak his mind.

“Whenever I am not doing stand-up, I keep to myself a lot when I observe what surrounds me,” Martin admitted. “I wanted to explore a character that was different from myself. Someone who has no filter and runs away from his problems.”

There are many moments sprinkled throughout DEAN where the titular character says the sort of things we all wish we could say in life. One such moment comes when he explains the idea for an invention during an inopportune time. In the scene, Dean speaks of a creation called a “baby silencer,” which is a funnel-like device that parents attach to their screaming children that includes headphones that sends their baby’s cries directly to their own ears.

“It was a daydream concept that came from years of traveling alone as a comedian and being tortured by screaming babies,” Martin joked. “Now I have kids of my own and would never wish to put that on them, because it’s so inhumane. But there was something funny to me about the logic of it.”

DEAN is a hugely entertaining, truthful and comical movie that’s easy to love. So if you don’t feel like fighting crowds to see the equally as impressive WONDER WOMAN this weekend, aim smaller with DEAN and walk away just as pleased, if not more so.

DEAN opens at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and Landmark Magnolia in Dallas today, but you can also catch Demetri Martin’s stand-up at the Majestic Theatre on June 16.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.