In making his debut as writer-director with the indie dramedy “Dean,” mop-topped comedian Demetri Martin spotlights the sketchpad doodling long featured in his drily idiosyncratic stand-up and TV work. It’s a recurring if not entirely surprising stylistic flourish that could easily seem indulgent if the images weren’t so entertaining.
Come to think of it, categorizing them as scribbles isn’t quite right. Martin will show us close-ups of his grieving cartoonist’s trusty felt-tip at work, and what we assume to be, say, just a circular snarl of black lines turns out to be a clever representation of his heavy heart.
It’s an inadvertent metaphor for the movie itself, a melancholy valentine to Martin’s real-life parents. Stay patient through those Seinfeldian stretches in which Martin isn’t so much acting as performing, and you’ll be treated to the bonus of some surprising emotional depth and poignancy.
Martin’s eponymous wag has no shortage of reasons to be aimlessly moping around his Brooklyn apartment. He recently split with his fiancee. He’s creatively blocked. He’s been bumped down to “second-best man” at the wedding of his longtime best friend (Reid Scott). His father (Kevin Kline) wants to sell the family home. And the real biggie: His mom passed away several months back, and he still can’t come to terms with losing her. Could there be a market for a book of ironic illustrations exclusively featuring the Grim Reaper?
On a whim, Dean accepts a work offer to travel to California, mostly just to duck all the worrying from his well-meaning dad. (It’s not for the LA scene-sters, as the next act amusingly makes clear.) Then he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), whose own low-key sense of humor sparks a rebound relationship that isn’t nearly as predictable as you might guess. And it’s not just because of the lousy advice Dean gets from his posturing wingman (Rory Scovel, finally getting exposure on a par with his old “When to Stop” commercial for Nissan).
The story continually cuts back to Kline’s character in New York and his gentle flirtation with his single-and-shy realtor (Mary Steenburgen). Watching a quietly masterful scene with the two tentatively considering a nightcap opportunity, you get the sense that this is Martin the director shrewdly compensating for what he can’t contribute as an actor. Then, improbably, Martin himself shares a moment with Kline that’s a bona fide tearjerker. Maybe he should consider swapping that smudge-prone felt-tip for a Sharpie.
Written and directed by Demetri Martin. Starring Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Rory Scovel, Mary Steenburgen. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. PG-13 (language, some suggestive material).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.