We all gathered for this one. The TV room was packed with women watching a film led by women, men still getting the ladies of their generation, combined oldsters smiling and tearing up at the magic of a simple, absorbing story of long-term widowhood and the immobility of the spirit that comes with it. I’ll See You In My Dreams is a gently-paced character study of people we all want to be: smart, sharp, wistful and housed in gorgeous sunshine and particularly well-selected furnishings. Blythe Danner, its lead, makes style and grace in your 70s look effortless.
Danner plays Carol, who lives in the old family home, her husband dead these twenty years. She lives an ordered day: alarm clock, pet dog, breakfast and paper, cards with friends in the local retirement village, golf and on. She masks the long life-pause with living in not uncheering habits. Her friends are similar if unexamined: stalwarts Rhea Perlman (Sally), June Squibb (Georgina) and Mary Kay Place (Rona) all giving it supportive and gentle challenge.
Our tears began early: day 2 in Carol’s company and Hazel the dog has missed their petting appointment. We sit with Danner’s devastated expression as she accompanies the dog to the vet and its final moment. Disruption to the routine continues: there’s a rat in her picture-glorious house; there’s Martin Starr as Lloyd, the beardily-dazed new pool cleaning man; Sally tries to break up Carol’s twenty year dry patch with an oddly sympathetic but disastrous speed-dating scene… What catches, strangely enough, is Lloyd.
For all that this film gets mature folk and doesn’t laugh at us, something it achieves by reheating movie clichés with a sympathetic touch, the Carol-Lloyd friendship dallies with the unlikely. Old Jack rather enjoyed the fantasy: it felt like a balance to all the old man / young woman films, similarly edging past the potential-romance ickiness, and giving us an oddball, warm, platonic friendship (see Mr Morgan’s Last Love (2013) and the rest…). Their sweetest scene is a trip to a karaoke bar, for Lloyd reacts to Carol’s admision that she was once a singer. And, boy, is she. Danner glides through Cry Me a River with professionalism and metaphor intact. Starr’s Lloyd is impressed and so was the TV room. Old Jack rather loved being in a crowd of affectionate smiles.
And then Sam Elliott‘s Bill turns up to flirt Danner back to life proper. Their scenes are full of gorgeous little surprises: nothing massive, don’t get me wrong, but you are constantly wrong-footed by character expectations and dialogue. This deep-voiced sexy man is tentative and gentlemanly, but not shy of telling Carol he likes her. There’s real affection and want pouring out of him alongside his silly, constantly unlit cigar. He’s a contradiction: that cigar; living at the golf club but not playing; family-free and with a boat called So What, but wanting companionship and seeking affection while cutting a dash that could be oppressively macho. Danner responds to him beautifully, gently letting him in whilst working through her own lack of practise. She gives off nervousness at the changes, avoiding the comedy-panic of clumsier movies.
And then things get difficult, but you’ll have to watch the film to see how. Rest assured, the rat returns, there’s comic (if mightily familiar) use of medicinal marijuana by the wonderful crowd of character actors supporting Danner, and Carol’s daughter Katherine (Malin Åkerman giving off old issues) turns up to prod Carol into livelier routines.
More subtle than other films about getting back to living, this made old Jack ponder longer than most on why we park our lives while waiting for death. Even when an insurance policy or a pension take the fears of youth away, they are not an excuse to avoid blundering on. Blythe Danner shows us with graceful simplicity that engaging, doing and playing will always knock away our psychological scar tissue. And we must let them.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is on iTunes and Amazon, but it’ll cost ya. Payback is well worth it, though.