Friday, May 15, 2015


I’ve been trying to avoid reading too much about Mad Max: Fury Road in anticipation of seeing it for myself tomorrow night in what I suspect will be a perfect setting-- a drive-in. But refraining from indulging in the enthusiasm of writers like Sean Burns and David Edelstein, and more tempered takes from others like Michael Sragow and Alan Scherstuhl, until after I see the movie is something I could probably only manage for another 24 hours or so. Needless to say, I look forward to reading those pieces and joining in on the conversation after I finish my own journey tomorrow night. The 70% rating bestowed upon Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t jibe with some of the more dumbfounded reviews I’ve come across this afternoon, so despite my crush on Rebel Wilson I feel safer taking a pass on this one than I might have otherwise.
One great alternative to both of those more heavily promoted movies is Brett Haley’s lovely and unexpected I’ll See You in My Dreams, which gives Blythe Danner the best role she’s ever had in a film, which she matches with probably her best performance. Dreams is one of those movies that, from a glance at the advertising, you probably think you’ve seen a thousand times (I know I did)—a heavily caricatured and overly sentimental romance for the Exotic Marigold crowd. But that preconception sells this nuanced, intelligent picture far short.

Danner plays Carol, a 20-year widow and former songstress who has settled into a comfortable but tentative life living off her husband’s life insurance. The movie begins when Carol loses yet another longtime companion (dog lovers should come prepared) and begins to feel more unmoored than ever. That’s when two men come into her life—she strikes up an unlikely friendship with her pool guy Lloyd (Martin Starr, who I barely recognized) and attracts the attention of a handsome stranger named Bill (Sam Elliot) who shares a name with her dead husband and lives in the retirement village where her Carol’s best pals (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb) also reside.

Even having read a description of the setup you may have ideas about where I’ll See You in My Dreams is headed, but Haley, directing a script he co-wrote with Marc Basch, thankfully has other ideas. The scenario sidesteps just about every cliché of the senior romance/parent-child conflict drama with surprising grace, painting with subtle strokes a portrait of the way the world looks for those who are nearer to the finish line than their younger, more unsettled counterparts. Haley and Basch are both in their ‘30s, which makes I’ll See You in My Dreams what critic Stephanie Zacharek has described as a remarkable feat of sympathetic imagination, in addition to being an emotionally involving and beautifully crafted drama centered on two characters who belong well outside a movie studio’s most desirable demographic.

Danner brings a flinty, weary sensibility to Carol—she always seems to be sizing people and situations up, not to set up zinger after zinger but because she truly doesn’t know how she should proceed with the cards she’s been dealt. She can feel the seductive pull of isolation, and you can see her making a case for it, even when she’s pleasantly surprised by the developing relationship with Bill—the two match each other’s experience with a healthy dose of forthrightness about intentions and desires, and the enjoyment they take in each other’s company because of that forthrightness, which they likely don’t share with many others, is palpable. And Danner seizes the opportunity to engage us with Carol not through emotional histrionics, but with subtle glances and body language that suggest the memories of a happier life to which she’s having ever more difficulty keeping hold of, and the possibility of a new dimension of experience she might just be waking up to. It’s a lovely piece of acting, hopefully not too subtle to end up forgotten come awards season.

The movie is enjoyable too simply because of the company, other than Danner, we get to keep. Elliot is magnetic as usual— it’s a pleasure to see him having such an easy time with his costar. Perlman and Squibb veer as close to broad caricature as the movie ever gets, but though you think it may succumb to crass comedy in their scenes together, the movie manages to avoid too much of the obvious, even during a scene when the ladies break into Perlman’s stash of medical marijuana. And I can’t overstate how glad I always am to see Mary Kay Place, however small or less-small the role. I was almost as happy to see Max Gail pop up near the beginning as one of Carol’s suitors in an ill-fated speed-dating session, and disappointed that the movie has literally nothing else for him to do.

But beside the gift of Danner’s presence, the movie’s biggest pleasure is probably Martin Starr as Lloyd, whose tentative, platonic friendship with Carol may or may not carry undercurrents of infatuation (just another way Haley keeps us guessing). Lloyd is an aspiring songwriter with almost no ambition or confidence—he’s moved back to Los Angeles from Texas to live with his ailing mother, a situation he uses to excuse the shrugs he musters toward life—and Starr keeps us intrigued by never overselling Lloyd either as a social bumbler or a potential creep. He’s as grateful for his improbable connection with Carol as she is, and the little spark it strikes in him is delightful.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one I dreaded most, when Carol and Lloyd hit a karaoke bar. Yet like so much else in I’ll See You in My Dreams it doesn’t take the painfully well-traveled path. Lloyd marvels at Carol’s sultry, slightly wobbly rendition of “Cry Me a River”(it’s when we first begin to suspect his fascination is deeper than he would ever intentionally let on), but Carol’s performance is tempered by Lloyd’s—he takes the stage first with an endearingly inept bash at “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which if anything is reminiscent of Britney Spears by way of Sueleen Gay, and it was in this moment I knew that Haley’s movie was going to be a whole lot better than the one I’d prejudged it to be.
If anything, Haley’s storytelling becomes even more confident as the movie goes along, and he guides us through the sorts of developments and possibly disabling narrative traps that have been mishandled so frequently since the cringe-inducing likes of Terms of Endearment. In fact, his touch is confident, so disarmingly light and marked with such ease that by the time I’ll See You in My Dreams arrives at its overwhelming and beautifully modulated final shot, the whole thing seems even more like a minor miracle. The fear is that young filmmakers not only won’t be interested in making modestly scaled movies like these, but that in the pursuit of ever-escalating spectacle they, and in fact an entire industry, will have forgotten how. Let the understated pleasures of I’ll See You in My Dreams be a lesson for them all.


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