Blythe Danner has always been intelligent and reliable and sometimes delightful on screen, but no one has ever called her a great actress. Then again, the movies have never really given her a chance to be a great actress. Great performances require great roles.
Now after 43 years in feature films, Danner has gotten the opportunity to show what she can do, and in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” she is simply jaw-dropping, just wonderful. Her every moment is unforced and true, full of inspired touches that are as natural as breathing and yet full of the weight and experience of life. Stop thinking of her as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother and start thinking that Blythe Danner has a daughter who acts, too.
She even sings. There’s a scene in a karaoke bar, in which she does a version of “Cry Me a River” that makes the lyric come alive. The song’s title has practically entered the lexicon as a punch line, but Danner takes the song and breathes life back into it, phrase by phrase, moment by moment. She brings a history of emotion to it, of sorrow, of earned wisdom, and a touch of bitterness. It’s more than a rendition. It’s practically a resurrection.
Throughout, Danner gets considerable aid from director and co-writer Brett Haley, who gives what might have been a sentimental film a blunt, matter-of-fact style. There are many times when another director might have put an extra bow on a moment, punctuating it with a look or gesture to bring it home. But Haley holds back and trusts the script and his actors.
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By keeping sentimentality out, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” leaves space for real emotion. Carol (Danner), a widow of some 20 years, is a matter-of-fact woman with some blunt edges, not some icon of sweetness. At the start of the film, she is dealing with the sickness of a longtime companion, her dog, and coping with the mysterious on and off presence of a rat in her Los Angeles home. But plot details don’t mean much in a movie like this.
The easiest way to describe “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is probably not the best way, as the story of a romance between people of a certain age, the age in this case being around 70. If you’re planning on looking for romance at that stage of life, looking like Danner and Sam Elliott would definitely help. But at heart, the film is really about something else, about a painful but necessary awakening of the spirit.
Carol really doesn’t want to be bothered – by anything. Even finding out that a different guy will be cleaning her pool from here on is a source of mild irritation. There is pain in her past, and routine is her way of getting things done while remaining just a little bit numb. Speaking of numb, she also drinks a fair amount, not enough for an intervention, but enough to notice.
In an unfancy way – in a way that’s like life, not like movies – everything that happens in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is about waking her up and making her feel again, from the handsome new man played by Elliott, to the presence of an unlikely new drinking buddy, the new pool guy (Martin Starr). But the great honesty and virtue of the film is that it does not overrate what it is to wake up and feel things. There’s a case to be made for numbness, too.
If we, as the audience, ultimately side with feeling, it’s because we believe in Carol, which is really the same as saying that we believe in Danner, who creates a woman of such worth and strength that, for days after, you will be thinking about her.
I’ll See You in My Dreams
A Cast: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott
Director: Brett Haley
Length: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (sexual material, drug use and brief strong language)
Raleigh: Colony. Durham: Carolina. Chapel Hill: Chelsea.