Blythe Danner has been acting in films, TV, and theater for almost 50 years, and yet she’s still better known as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother than for anything she has done on screen. This isn’t all that surprising — she has insisted on taking character roles, and much of her earlier work was in forgettable stuff like Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Prince of Tides, and Mad City. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that she started being noticed, winning Emmys for her TV roles on Will & Grace and the short-lived Huff. She has done some of her best movie acting in just the last few years, a funny turn as a hippie stoner in Paul and a layered performance as a mother trying to push her adult daughter out of the nest in Hello I Must Be Going. Now, 43 years after her last leading role in a film (in something called To Kill a Clown), she stars in I’ll See You in My Dreams, and while this gentle comedy itself isn’t a deathless work of art, the role turns out to have been worth the wait for this longtime character actress.
She plays Carol Petersen, a Los Angeles retiree who hasn’t been on a date since being widowed 20 years ago. Her life is a cycle of watching TV and visiting her friends at a retirement home to play bridge until two new men enter her life. One is Lloyd (Martin Starr), a much younger frustrated poet/songwriter who is her new pool guy. The other is Bill (Sam Elliott), a Dallas native who lives at the retirement home, chomps habitually on an unlit cigar, and hits on Carol shamelessly until she agrees to have lunch with him.
The film is directed and co-written by Brett Haley, who proceeds cautiously in his first feature. He doesn’t break any new stylistic ground, simply keeping to the slow rhythms and circumscribed world that Carol lives in, where the most excitement she experiences comes when she finds a rat in her house. There’s one comic bit in which Carol persuades her bridge pals (a fine bunch, played by Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and June Squibb) to get high on someone’s medical marijuana, and while the scene feels shoehorned in, it’s skillfully played by the four actresses. Another set piece involves Carol going through speed-dating, but we’ve seen other comedies take better advantage of the horrors of going through several bad dates at once. (The 40-Year-Old Virgin comes to mind.) The subplot with Carol being visited by her daughter (Malin Akerman) doesn’t come to much, either.
The substance of this movie is in Carol’s relationships with the two men. The one with Bill is the one that blossoms into romance, and while Elliott coasts on his usual shtick and his booming basso voice, the relationship gains traction when it comes to a sudden stop and jolts Carol. The better supporting turn comes from Starr, who usually plays disaffected, sardonic, long-haired intellectual types in comedies like Superbad and Adventureland. Here his hair is a lot shorter (though he has a full beard), and he plays a sensitive, introspective type who provides Carol with a drinking companion and a friend in time of need.
Meanwhile, the 73-year-old Danner looks in fine fettle, whether she’s singing a sultry karaoke version of “Cry Me a River” or realizing at the end that she still has a life to live and can still feel joy and sorrow. But this doesn’t come in the form of an earth-cracking revelation –– oftentimes our great insights come in these little shifts of perception, and it’s enough to hang a drama on. I’ll See You in My Dreams seems to be part of a wave of films about older people that includes Danny Collins and the upcoming Grandma and Ricki and the Flash. (Indeed, Meryl Streep has turned such films into a one-woman cottage industry.) While such films can degenerate into cheap sentiment and uplift like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, they do have an audience that isn’t being served by the summer blockbusters, and they offer the chance to tell the types of stories that our multiplexes don’t offer enough of.
[box_info]I’ll See You in My Dreams
Starring Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, and Sam Elliott. Directed by Brett Haley. Written by Marc Basch and Brett Haley. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]