For anyone who makes a living in comedy, taking it easy is no easy thing. It’s easier to deliver, to sell it, conspicuously; the tougher course involves delivering in unexpected and subterranean ways.
The focal point in Demetri Martin’s feature film directing debut, “Dean,” might be characterized as unassuming on the cusp of bashfulness. With his soft-pedal delivery, appealing hesitancy and wily timing, Martin plays a Brooklyn cartoonist coping with the recent death of his mother.
“Dean” presents two entwined portraits in mild-mannered grief. As Dean’s father, Kevin Kline anchors Martin’s film. His semi-directionless son causes him considerable worry. Early in the movie, Martin, in voice-over, explains that Dean published one book and is criminally late on delivering the follow-up. “One critic said it was ‘full of whimsy,’ ” he notes of the first one. “I’ll take it.”
The same goes for “Dean,” longer on charm than on the three-dimensional mess of life. Martin lays out his script as a road picture. Recovering from an aborted engagement, stuck emotionally in the wake of his mother’s death, Dean is invited by an L.A. ad agency to take a meeting about using his illustrations to sell an Axe-like body spray. On the L.A. trip, at a party laden with jerks, he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) and promptly falls heels over head over heels.
Meantime, back in New York, Dad has listed the family home with a single real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen). For both father and son, romance develops in the shadow of loss, and they’re not really themselves yet. Martin, who was 20 when he lost his father, has made a movie from a personal place. His commercial instincts, however, keep “Dean” strolling down a familiar path of obstacles and resolutions.
His primary visual idea is a simple one: Throughout “Dean” the character’s setbacks come to life as illustrations. The soundtrack is laden with music cues in the quirk-folk vein that indicate a mood rather than embodying one. (Or, ideally, more than one.) Martin is a smooth enough director to make fuller and more ambitious pictures than “Dean.” This one is a promising start.
As for Jacobs, lately in “Don’t Think Twice,” she’s more than ready to take on a role requiring more than propping up a wry leading man. She is, of course, not alone in that regard.
(Opens Friday at Glenwood Arts, Tivoli.)
Rated PG-13 for language and some suggestive material.