Blythe Danner has been one of our best actresses for four decades, primarily in the theater, where she’s won two Tonys and performec Shakespeare, Shaw, and everything in between. So although she’s had a few juicy roles on film and TV, a lot of people might know her only as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother, if they know that. Now, still beautiful at age 72, she’s the ideal choice to play a kind and highly intelligent widow wondering what meaning there might be left in a life far closer to its end than its beginning. Which is basically the plot of a new movie called I’ll See You in My Dreams, directed by Brett Haley and written by Haley and Marc Basch.
The film opens with an upsetting event in what seems like an otherwise placid existence for Carol Petersen, played by Danner, who is living comfortably retired in her nice southern California home. Her 14-year-old dog can’t get up anymore, and she has to have him put down. Although Carol isn’t as shaken by this as she thinks she should be, there is an emotional ripple effect that causes her to tentatively look at life with new eyes. Then the sudden appearance of a black rat scurrying across her floor freaks her out—the film’s light touch precludes this from being some kind of overt symbol, but suffice it to say that sleeping outside next to the pool because of her fear of the rat creates the opportunity to meet the new pool guy, a slightly depressed young man named Lloyd, played by Martin Starr. The friendship that develops between these two, instead of just being a quirky bit of fun as you might expect, becomes touching and profound, uniting their widely disparate ages in a shared sense of puzzled amusement about life.
Carol is also persuaded by one of her friends to go speed-dating, which is one of the film’s funnier sequences. Three familiar faces are here, ably supporting Danner in the role of her best friends living in a nearby retirement community—Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman, and June Squibb. Place especially has some good scenes playing one of those friends most of us know—the kind who’s just a little too nosy.
Sometimes, however, a too-familiar face can jar me out of the fictional dream—that’s kind of how I felt seeing Sam Elliot show up as a quietly self-confident man interested in getting romantic with Carol. It seems too good to be true.
But the film is nevertheless highly enjoyable, and the lion’s share of credit for that of course goes to Blythe Danner, inhabiting her character with wisdom, wit, and a little fragility as well. Besides the relief of watching a film about an older woman for a change, I was also grateful that I’ll See You in My Dreams could be emotional without being saccharine or sentimental.