“I’ll See You in My Dreams” starts with a gut punch. Carol Peterson, a Los Angeles widow and retired schoolteacher who spends most of her days (and all of her nights) with her yellow lab Hazel, has to put her beloved companion to sleep. The audience even bears witness to the awful act, as the fragile-looking Carol (Blythe Danner) weeps inside of the veterinarian’s office, laying her head on the big dog’s chest while the animal slips away.
That is more than enough to get us on Carol’s side. But is it enough to keep us there?
The drama, directed by Brett Haley, who wrote the script with Mark Basch, has a lot going for it. It tells a story that’s been largely ignored but will no doubt resonate with retirees who feel like they’ve lost their purpose. And the plot winds its way to unpredictable places. But time and again, Carol proves to be an inscrutable hero. She typically comes off as either standoffish or sedate.
After she puts Hazel down, Carol goes about her usual business. She gets up at 6 a.m. and reads the paper; she plays cards with her three best friends, who try to get Carol to join them in their retirement community; and she golfs. But she also starts spicing things up, if only a bit.
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She lets one of her friends, Sally (Rhea Perlman), talk her into speed-dating, which turns out to be a disaster. And she embarks on a wine-fueled platonic friendship with her new pool guy, played by “Silicon Valley” star Martin Starr. She even goes to karaoke one night and convinces her friends to dip into their medical marijuana stash. Most excitingly, she starts hanging out with another retiree, Bill, played by Sam Elliott, who is as impressively mustachioed as ever.
Elliott is beguiling as a Texas transplant who’s constantly chewing on a cigar he never lights, and the movie is at its most thrilling when he’s onscreen – and not just because he gets the chance to show off his still luxuriant chest hair. The chemistry between Danner and him is evident as soon as he sees her standing in a drug store staring at vitamins. “You don’t need all that,” he tells her in his signature deep twang. “You’re just right the way you are.”
Whenever Elliott isn’t onscreen, the movie seems to deflate a little. Part of the problem is that the other scenes feel so familiar, from Carol’s showstopping karaoke performance to her crew’s stoned trip to the grocery store. Worse, there’s a speed-dating montage, which has been done many times before, and with a bigger comedic payoff.
Still, there’s something refreshingly realistic about the director’s approach. The movie has an unhurried pace, letting the camera linger over long conversations. The exchanges between Carol and her grown daughter Kat (Malin Akerman) are sometimes painfully authentic, especially when Kat insists to her mother that she’s had a good life, and Carol responds, “It’s all in the past.”
The trailer makes “Dreams” seem like a knockoff of a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s a more serious, less cutesy affair than such flimsy comedies as “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” Instead, the drama serves as a pleasant reminder that no matter how old we get, we never really become experts at life. And who would want to? The fumbling is often the most interesting part.
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Cast: Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Phea Perlman, Martin Starr and Malin Akerman
Director: Brett Haley
Rated PG-13 (Contains sexual situations, drug use and brief strong language)