Directed by: Brett Haley
Written by: Marc Basch & Brett Haley.
Starring: Blythe Danner (Carol Petersen), Martin Starr (Lloyd), Sam Elliott (Bill), June Squibb (Georgina), Rhea Perlman (Sally), Mary Kay Place (Rona), Malin Akerman (Katherine Petersen).
I’ll be honest – although I’ll See You in My Dreams got good reviews, I skipped it when it was in theaters because I assume it was going to be another “old lady” movie. You know the ones I mean – like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a group of old people rediscover the joy of living, through a series of comic misadventures that allow the audience to feel good about themselves. I don’t begrudge these movies existence – considering that every week seems to bring another film to fulfill the fantasies of teenage boys, getting a few movies a year that fulfill the fantasies of the retired set seems more than fair to me – plus it allows some great actresses, like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to keep their skills sharp, until they are given a great role again. But those movies never really do much for me – they’re always the same, and often fill me with the opposite emotion than the movie is going for – sadness, instead of happiness – because what I always realize during the movies is that the characters have been miserable for 30, 40 even 50 years, and only discover joy as they are headed towards death. Maybe that’s a helpful fantasy for older people – that it’s never too late – but for those of us in the midst of the years the characters were supposedly so miserable, it’s depressing. However, the cast of I’ll See You in My Dreams was so good – and the low-key Oscar buzz surrounding Blythe Danner keeps building – so I figured I had to see the movie- and I’m glad I did. The movie is hardly great – but it is much different than I assumed it would be. For one thing, the movie embraces the sadness that most of these movies ignore. For another, the co-writer/director Brett Haley seems to be actively working against the clichés of the genre – often setting up precisely the same sort of situation that you would see in another of the movies, and then taking it in a different direction. Now, whether that direction is actually a good one is debatable – but watching the film I was always aware that I didn’t quite know what was going to happen next.
The film stars Blythe Danner as Carol Petersen – a woman who has been widowed for 20 years now, and who lives alone with her dog (who in the opening scenes she has to put down – an early sign that this isn’t going to be the same old movie) – and hanging out with her three friends – played by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place – who all live in a senior community, and want her to move in as well. Carol lives a safe, not unhappy, life – but not one that is overly fulfilling either. She has a daughter (Malin Akerman) – who never married and had kids, and lives far enough way that a plane trip is necessary to visit. When, late in the film, Akerman does visit – it is pleasant enough – but there’s just enough left unsaid between them to let you know that it hasn’t always been easy between them – that they are not overly close.
There isn’t much plot to I’ll See You in My Dream – but what there is involves two different men entering her life – for the first time since her husband died all those years ago. The first one is the much younger Lloyd (Martin Starr), in his 30s, who has moved back into with his mother and takes a job cleaning pools. The two of them have an easy repore – and its clear Lloyd has mommy issues – but are they really going to do anything? He does take her to karaoke one day – she used to be a singer at some point – and she delivers a stirring performance. Then there is Bill, who is played by Sam Elliot, and could only have been played by Sam Elliot, with his roguish charm. He is direct with Carol, and the two fall in love pretty quickly – although, of course, in a movie that is trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, it doesn’t quite end the way you expect.
Danner is at the center of every scene in the movie, and it is wonderful little performance. Danner has always been a fine actress – someone who slides into supporting roles, and ensemble pieces, and gives the film precisely what it needs. She has rarely been the lead though – and that’s too bad, because here she is given a role that requires her to hit a multitude of notes, which she does and makes it look effortless. The rest of the cast is game to support her – falling into their roles well, but it is Danner’s movies, and she carries it with charm, humor and grace.
I don’ think I’ll See You in My Dreams adds up to very much. In a strange way, it reminded me of Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies from a few years ago – as that was a film that took a stock romantic comedy situation – the best friends who you should be more – and then spun it off in a different direction. The problem with both movies is that other than not giving audiences what they expect in a movie of their genres, it doesn’t give them all that much in place of it. I’ll See You in My Dreams is better – because even when you realize the movie isn’t really going anywhere, there is still the pleasure of watching Danner and Elliot and Starr, in the best cinematic roles any of them have had in a while – but all of them could have been at the heart of a great movie, which I’ll See You in My Dreams is not.