A star is finally born

Gwyneth schmyneth.

Gwyneth schmyneth.

Rated 4.0

Blythe Danner is one of the unsung treasures of the American acting profession. Well, not entirely unsung: she does have two Emmys (for five nominations) and a Tony (four nominations) under her belt. But for more than 40 years she’s been doing stellar work on stage, on TV and in movies without ever quite making the breakthrough that her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow had with Emma and Shakespeare in Love; simple stardom—let alone superstardom—has eluded her, and for no good reason other than the plain bad luck of the draw.

I’ll See You in My Dreams offers a glimmer of hope that this may be about to change. Finally, at the age of 72, Blythe Danner gets a movie almost entirely to herself. She’s in every scene—almost every shot—and she infuses the whole film with her ageless, down-to-earth beauty.

Danner plays Carol Petersen, a widow living in middle-class retirement in suburban Los Angeles with her dog, a big, comfy male golden retriever named Hazel. Every morning they wake up to the same gently beeping clock radio—until the day Hazel’s 14-year-old body fails him and Carol has to take him for that last sad trip to the vet. In a characteristically understated touch, director Brett Haley shows Carol waking up to the alarm the next morning and glancing at the empty foot of her bed; it’s a quiet moment that tells us without words how empty a house can feel when its resident dog is no longer around.

Carol’s main social outlet is playing bridge and golf with three friends who live in a nearby retirement home, Sally (Rhea Perlman), Georgina (June Squibb) and Rona (Mary Kay Place). She spends a lot of time fending off their suggestions that she join them in residence (“I’m comfortable in my house, very comfortable, thank you.”) and enter the seniors dating scene (“Don’t start with that—dating talk, second husband talk.”). She unbends long enough to let Sally drag her to a speed-dating event, where she meets several nice men—and a couple of losers—none of whom interest her. “I lived a long, healthy life for that? What the hell was I doing in there?”

Sally and the others want Carol to come out of her shell, but she isn’t really in one. Nor is she particularly reclusive. When she sees a black rat skittering across her spotless hardwood floor, it unnerves her enough to spend the night on the wicker sofa on her patio, and that’s how she meets Lloyd (Martin Starr), the new maintenance man with her pool service. She prevails upon him to join her in a fruitless search for the rat, then she offers him a glass of wine for his trouble. Two bottles and some easy conversation later, he takes his leave, telling Carol that she’s “a good drinking buddy.” Carol’s comfortable life opens up enough to include an unforced friendship with this much younger man; when he learns that she was a band singer way back when, before marriage and a long career in teaching, he invites her out for karaoke some night—and “some night” eventually arrives. (Danner favors viewers with a sublimely soothing rendition of “Cry Me a River” that makes one wish she’d sing more often.)

Romance arrives as well when Carol meets Bill (Sam Elliott). Their paths first cross when he sidles up to her in the vitamin aisle at the pharmacy; “You don’t need all that,” he mutters to her. “Just right the way you are.” They catch each other’s eye after Carol and Sally finish a round of golf, he approaches her in the parking lot and she impulsively lets him have her phone number.

I’ll See You in My Dreams is only Brett Haley’s second theatrical feature, after a handful of shorts and one direct-to-video slasher flick. His first feature was The New Year, an indie quickie shot in 12 days for $8,000 that got some positive buzz at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. There’s an undercurrent to I’ll See You that suggests Haley and his co-writer Marc Basch know this could be their ticket to the big time and they’re determined not to blow it. Haley may even have visions of becoming another Woody Allen, and maybe he will—although Allen almost never makes movies about people who are as comfortable in their own skins as Carol Petersen and the others in her circle.