Category Archives: mumblecore

Dean: Directed and starring Demetri Martin

Dean – Demetri Martin (2016)

Dean, the indie film directed and written by and starring Demetri Martin, is somewhere in between a minimalist/mumblecore and a standard rom-com. You may be familiar with Martin’s stand-up performances, which have appeared on Netflix (where you can also find this film, though you may have to search).

Not everyone is a fan of Demetri Martin’s ultra low-key, hipster persona. In terms of stand-up, the closest analogy I can think of is Steven Wright , who delivers his often absurdist lines in a similar monotone (as Wright has been around since the 70s, he may have been an influence on Martin). I’ll confess that I actually like both of these guys more than many people do. But then I’m not a big fan of standard stand-up, which to me all starts to sound the same after a while with jokes about airports, relationships, having kids, and aging. I’ve heard Martin described as pretentiously hip and so forth but I actually appreciate that you never really know what he’s going to say and it doesn’t always make sense.

Even as a Martin fan, however, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Dean. Martin’s style on stage, where he delivers unexpected and often hilariously absurd one-liners, doesn’t really work the same way on screen. Here, he’s just another emo-type hipster with a broken heart.

Dean is a youngish (Martin was 44 when this came out but could pass for late 20s) struggling artist living in an improbably stylish Brooklyn brownstone. He and his father Robert (Kevin Kline) are suffering from the recent death of Dean’s mother. Robert wants to sell their house, which is a source of disagreement between father and son. To avoid dealing with that, and to get away from his life in general, Dean flies to LA where he has an interview with an internet company that’s interested in his darkly whimsical illustrations (the drawings, actually done by Martin, are featured throughout the film).

We get a familiar parody of LA with its decadent parties and obnoxious internet startup types. Dean’s trip is not a total waste, though, as he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), the sort of perky blond co-star that’s practically mandatory in rom-coms. There’s a parallel romance happening back in New York as Robert flirts with a real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen). Are either Dean or Robert ready for a serious relationship?

Dean isn’t only a lightweight indie-ish rom-com. It’s also about how people deal with grief. This isn’t an original topic, but it’s one that has archetypal relevance to everyone. Martin attempts to convey an arc for his character, who goes from flippant and obnoxious to more self-reflective and considerate of those around him. I think the problem with Martin is that minimalism is what he does best and while this definitely works for a certain type of humor, it doesn’t really work for creating a complex and sympathetic character.

I’ll also add that I’ve developed a certain attitude towards movies where the director, writer, and star are the same person. I’m sure you could come up with examples of great films that fit this category, this approach has its pitfalls such as a lack of objectivity -someone to watch what’s going on and notice areas that may need tweaking.

There’s nothing to hate about Dean. It has passably funny dialog in places and anyone in creative fields and/or who has lost a parent will be able to relate to Dean to some extent. It just doesn’t really stand out from the thousands of other indie/ rom-coms set in New York and/or LA with scripts that have similar trajectories.

Entertainment (2015) -directed by Rick Alverson

The title Entertainment is ironic, as it’s about someone who calls himself an entertainer but is anything but. Director Rick Alverson, whose previous work includes another darkly comic film, actually named The Comedy (2012), here attempts the thankless task of presenting an unlikable, often repulsive protagonist as he alienates everyone around him and eventually loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I have a certain admiration for this film even though it’s not very enjoyable (nor is it meant to be). Gregg Turkington plays the nameless comic who performs in mostly empty rooms in desolate towns. Apparently, this is a character that Turkington plays regularly in stage performances. Having never seen this, however, I can only comment on the movie.

The “comic”  alternately insults the audience and delivers offensive jokes with no punch lines. At first, I found the movie funny in a perverse way; the comic’s bizarre idiosyncratic sense of humor, or what passes for that, has elements found in some of the work of Jim Jarmusch (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise) or the Coen Brothers (e.g. Barton Fink).

As the mostly plotless movie meanders along, however, it goes from dark comedy to something more like surreal tragedy -closer to David Lynch territory. As the comic leaves messages for his estranged daughter, we start to wonder if the daughter is even real. Similarly, when he witnesses a woman giving birth in a public bathroom, it’s uncertain whether this is reality or a hallucination.

John C. Reilly, the best-known actor in the film, plays a kind of straight man role here as the comic’s cousin. Tye Sheridan plays a clown/mime who performs along with the comic at various desolate venues. The clown’s performances are similarly bizarre, though the crowd at least responds to him while they ignore or heckle the comic.

I have a high tolerance for mumblecore as well as lightly plotted and even absurdist films. But this one didn’t quite work for me. There’s just not enough to grab onto either intellectually or emotionally. There is no backstory or context here, so we have no clue how or why the comic has reached this state. I also wondered how an unfunny comic with no fans could have gotten so many bookings, but I suppose you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

As the comic’s behavior gets progressively more bizarre, it’s like watching a random insane person mumbling to himself on the streets of a large city. Perhaps that’s not far from what Alverson is going for here -to compel you to look at one example of what a cold and uncaring world has done to one person, without providing any of the details. Watching Entertainment is definitely not a pleasant experience, but the movie is  interesting and well acted if ultimately obscure and pointless.