Thursday, June 4, 2015

I'll See You in My Dreams: Thoughtful character portrait

I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for drug use and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Sometimes what seems like a comfortable rut actually is a slow slide into prolonged depression, at which point an unexpected crisis — or two — can transform unconfronted anxieties into utter despair.

Once beyond the initial awkwardness of their disparate ages, Carol (Blythe Danner) and
Lloyd (Martin Starr) discover that they genuinely enjoy chatting, and sharing little intimacies.
The question, moving forward, is where this relationship might go.
That’s the subject of director Brett Haley’s sweet, gentle drama, which draws its strength from a subtle and deeply layered performance by Blythe Danner. She stars as Carol Petersen, a comfortably retired single woman who — if asked —would insist that she has made peace with the unexpected loss of a beloved husband, some 20 years earlier.

After all, Carol’s life is filled with activity, much of it revolving around gardening, golf and boisterous bridge games — not much bridge actually being played — with longtime gal pals Rona (Mary Kay Place), Sally (Rhea Perlman) and Georgina (June Squibb). Carol’s schedule is disciplined to a reasonable degree, from the 6 a.m. wake-up buzz of her alarm clock, to a bit of television before lights out somewhere around 11 p.m. each evening.

But Carol hasn’t actually been alone; she has come to depend upon the constant presence of her beloved dog, Hazel. And therein lies the potential for emotional collapse.

After deftly establishing the parameters of Carol’s routine, Haley and co-scripter Marc Basch open their narrative with a gut-wrenching sequence. Hazel clearly is old, and so we’re not surprised by what occurs ... but animal lovers will have considerable difficulty surviving the subsequent scene in a veterinarian’s office, as Carol bids goodbye to her longtime companion.

Danner plays the scene so persuasively that I wondered if it could be genuine, the actress huskily trying to maintain composure while confronting the need to “do the kind thing” for an actual devoted pet. The scene feels that genuine, as anybody who has been there can attest.

And, suddenly, all the scheduled activities that have structured Carol’s life, for so long, have lost their luster. She’s hard-pressed to identify the actual problem, and at this point — this early in the film — she may not even be consciously aware that her fragility is rising.

Haley’s film is less a conventional drama, with strong plot points, and more a thoughtful tone poem: an often painfully intimate opportunity for us, as viewers, to confront our own perceived stability. The verisimilitude is strong. Danner’s Carol could be the vibrant and cheerful neighbor next door: the one with whom we exchange pleasant greetings, but rarely probe further. In a way, Haley and Basch quietly suggest that there’s much to be gained from getting to know such folks better, because we’re all — each of us — worth knowing better.

In terms of tone and execution, this modest character portrait evokes pleasant memories of Cairo Time and Enough Said, which gave their respective stars (Patricia Clarkson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) similar opportunities for quietly memorable performances in modest, real-world storylines.

In the wake of Hazel’s departure, Carol’s uncomplicated schedule is interrupted by three invaders. The first is decidedly unwelcome: a large black rat that scurries across her living room, prompting a night’s sleep outside, on the back yard patio sofa. She’s caught there, the following morning, by the mildly surprised pool guy (Martin Starr, as Lloyd), who initially fears that she might be dead.

Once flustered introductions are behind them, Carol discovers that Lloyd is rather easy to talk to: the total stranger who pays her the compliment of listening attentively. After a few glasses of wine, Lloyd returns the favor by tagging her as an ideal “drinking buddy.”

Lloyd is a case unto himself: a late twentysomething utterly adrift, making ends meet while trying not to think about an uncertain future. Starr, a busy TV and big-screen presence in all sorts of small roles, makes the most of this central supporting performance. He underplays Lloyd almost — but not quite — to the point of comedic caricature, his warily deadpan expression concealing intelligence and interest.

The resulting friendship is as unlikely as the growing bond is genuine. They discover a shared interest in music: Carol the veteran of a long-ago band, Lloyd a would-be poet and (possibly) budding songwriter with a fondness for karaoke.

Needless to say, Rona draws absolutely the wrong conclusion, when she happens to see Lloyd exiting Carol’s house early one morning.

Rona, Sally and Georgina live in a retirement community conveniently adjacent to a golf course; they’ve been trying to get Carol to join them for years, but she has resisted, preferring the greater control of her life that one gets, in one’s own house. But she nonetheless spends a fair amount of time at the facility — actually Royal Oaks, a senior community in the San Gabriel Valley community of Duarte — and therefore comes to the attention of Bill (Sam Elliott), a crusty, invariably smiling fellow who radiates smoldering sex appeal.

Bill isn’t shy about making his interest known; Carol, after a bit of flirty byplay, isn’t shy about responding. The resulting courtship draws its poignant energy from the ruggedly debonair Elliott, a long undersung actor who always brings solid acting chops to the table. Why Elliott never achieved genuine A-list status remains a mystery; the man easily commands a scene, genuinely blowing everybody else off the screen ... and it’s a credit to Danner, that she keeps up with him.

On top of which, Elliott has a twinkle in his eye to die for. And his range always has been impressive; his work here couldn’t be more different than the vicious, thoroughly evil bastard he just finished playing during the final season of television’s Justified.

So: Lloyd, Bill ... and that damn black rat. What’s a woman to do?

The combustible emotional brew is further spiced by the arrival of Carol’s daughter, Katherine (Malin Akerman). They appear close, but apparently don’t visit often; the bond is strong, but Carol seems not to have quite surmounted the mother/daughter dynamic, to start regarding Katherine as a friend and confidante.

Perlman, Squibb and Place are a collective hoot: Sally feisty and somewhat naughty; Georgina tart-tongued and mildly disapproving; Rona primly reserved, but always yielding to what the others suggest. Akerman is a nice surprise: believably tender and compassionate in a quiet role that is leagues removed from the overly broad nonsense in which she’s usually found.

Haley co-funded this film via a Kickstarter campaign that raised $61,365 from backers no doubt charmed by the project’s raison d’être: “You can’t turn back the clock, but you can wind it up again.” He got considerable mileage from the modest budget, drawing droll and compelling performances from the entire cast, and delivering a series of thoroughly compelling interludes.

This is truly a case where the journey itself becomes far more important than a destination which (as far as I’m concerned) is telegraphed by one early sequence.

That said, Haley and Basch sometimes yield to cliché, as if struggling to fill their film’s already brief 92-minute running time. Carol’s awkward experiment with speed dating, and Haley’s handling of same, seem pointless and play like similar sequences we’ve seen too many times before. That’s also true of another interlude, when Carol and her friends indulge in some medical marijuana, and then go on a munchie run: another way-familiar detour that feels contrived, and not worthy of the film’s many other authentic character moments.

Happily, Danner’s effervescent, deeply felt performance surmounts these minor hiccups. I can’t imagine this film even getting noticed — let alone surviving — in today’s unforgiving big-screen marketplace, but I’d like to think it’ll have a long and happy life via home video, which is better suited to this tender story’s intimacy.

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