When standup comedians come to the big screen (and the lists are distinguished), they tend to stay with what works, extending their personas and bits into feature-length material within their comfort zones.  Most lack creativity to make something unique out of their individuality.  That is not the case with Comedy Central comedian Demetri Martin making his impressive feature writing and directing debut with Dean.  In 87 breezy minutes pushing against the grief of its characters, the Best Narrative Feature winner from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival squeezes earnest sweetness out of bleak material that would never play on his comedy club stages.   

Simply put, this is a comedian showing he has more than one voice and the complements do not end there.  As a creative vessel, Dean incorporates several aspects of Demetri Martin’s brand of humor as enhancing energy in a dramedy narrative that couldn’t feel less like an extended comedy sketch born from one of his shows.  The film channels his observational personality and minimalistic sketch art as storytelling layers all their own in an anecdote of a father and son coping in different ways after the death of the family matriarch. 

Martin plays the title character, a mop-topped Brooklynite illustrator who is an awkward mess approaching a new crossroads in life.  Armed with his felt-tip flair pen, the cocooning Dean puts his grieving into his art with increasingly prevalent death and Grim Reaper imagery.  He is dragging his feet on an incomplete new book assignment and a directionless career while his friends are getting married and starting families instead of burying them.  His father Robert (played by the masterfully restrained Kevin Kline), on the other hand, is a retired engineer and a pull-up-your-bootstraps type.  He dove into the therapy, self-help books, and boosting physical activity the experts suggested a widower of his age should do to stay sharp and move ahead.

Robert and Dean have clearly never understood each other, yet the father continues to worry about his son and his perceived lack of effort towards closure.  Roberts sets it in his mind to downsize and sell Dean’s childhood home, enlisting the services of a fetching and equally single-and-senior realtor named Carol (a Life as a House reunion for Kline with Mary Steenburgen).  Chasing a fringe job opportunity and unprepared to deal with Robert’s potential decision, Dean hops to Los Angeles to decompress and visit friends.  At a perfect time of clumsiness at a party, Dean catches the eye of and falls hard for the witty Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), which leads him to extend his California stay.

All along the way in Dean, Demetri Martin, in front of the camera, behind it, and at the screenwriting typewriter, impresses to no end.  He transmits his extroverted artistic genius to a slower, deeper, and more introverted setting and structure without sacrificing punch or creativity.  To great effect, split-screen camerawork reveals his ornate scribbles as perfectly-timed peeks into Dean’s thoughts and feelings at choice moments.  Sharing the growth arc with Kline’s own crossroads, not an ounce of this film is overacted as any one-man-show or glamour project.

Buoyed by heavy melancholy playlist of Pete Dello and Honeybus and others curated and supervised by Joel C. High and Martin himself, Dean is confident exercise in reflective comedy peering into a not-so-weird and not-so-little world.  Best of all, it’s an emotionally satisfying one too that does not follow the rote hipster or pixie paths.  

The tonal stylings of Dean may scream Woody Allen and Wes Anderson to some, even to the point of seeming derivative, but I see more Zach Braff with the punctuation of emotionality on top of eccentricity.  This film feels more like a Garden State journey than an episodic Allen musing and rises to be a more assured statement with brevity than a cheeky Anderson dalliance.  Right next to Jordan Peele’s Get Out earlier this year, Dean is one of the best directing and writing filmmaking debuts of a comedian in recent memory.  This is an absolute treat.  

LESSON #1: WRITE MORE NOTES-- Call him old-fashioned while he carries around his little pocket sketchbook, but Dean is a man who favors the beauty of pen-and-paper over cellular bits of communication and notation.  Words put to pen are more thought out and invested compared to throwaway chat lingo.  They last in more meaningful ways.  Once in awhile, try reverting back to penmanship and handwriting.  Add it to your repertoire of moves.

LESSON #2: BROKEN GRIEF PROCESSES-- There’s no replacing a wife or a mother.  Still, folks like Robert and Dean must climb their proverbial five-step ladders to acceptance, no matter the height of the climb or the risk of fall from it.  Dean’s rudderless trajectory and figurative ladder seems to be a little taller and filled with broken rungs and stalls.  

 LESSON #3: WHEN AND WHERE YOU MEET INFLUENTIAL LOVES IN YOUR LIFE-- Love is one outstanding cure and outlet for grief.  Essentially, Dean is a two-headed, late-blooming coming-of-age story for both Dean and Robert.  Both have new maturation to face in being on their own.  Both aren’t looking for love, but find inviting potential for it when they were not prepared for or expecting it.