Twilight Sings a Song, by David Bax
Everything about Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams, from the elegiac title to the affluent, white, Southern California retiree milieu, implies that it’s going to be pleasant, inoffensive matinee fare. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Haley’s film is a clear-eyed meditation on the contents of a life lived and what those things all mean in the face of encroaching death. It also features a funny scene where a bunch of old ladies get high.
Haley disabuses the audience of any expectation of frivolity right from the opening sequence, a gutting and matter-of-fact string of static shots detailing the quickly progressing sickness of a beloved dog and the decision to put him to sleep. Anyone who has ever even thought about having a pet will be laid low by the quiet devastation of it. The dog’s owner is Carol (Blythe Danner, as wily and illuminating as always) and, fun as it would be see Danner go all John Wick, this isn’t that kind of movie. She is a widow of twenty years whose daughter (Malin Akerman) resides in another city. Carol lives alone but spends many an afternoon with her close friends who have all moved into a posh retirement village and consistently encourage her to do the same. Those friends are played by an all-star trio – Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb. Also living in the same complex is a smooth divorcee named Bill (Sam Elliott) who has the hots for Carol. Their tentative dates represent her first attempt at being with a man since her husband died. Coincidentally, she simultaneously strikes up a nebulously defined relationship with Lloyd (Martin Starr), the guy who cleans her pool.
I’ll See You in My Dreams clearly boasts an impressive cast of characters, emphasis on both cast and characters. Bill constantly walks around with an unlit cigar in his mouth like it’s the large-print-for-seniors edition of The Fault in Our Stars. Meanwhile, the crass and hard-drinking Sally (Perlman), prickly fuddy-duddy Georgina (Squibb) and harshly pragmatic Rona (Place) make the retirement community feel like The More Reasonable, Closer to Home Exotic Marigold Hotel. Once again, though, this first blush appraisal and dismissal would be off the mark. Haley keeps the quirks in check, never letting them infringe on the emotional truth of a scene or a moment. Despite the high jinks, this is an ultimately realistic movie, provided you can buy into a film where Starr for once plays the least cynical person onscreen.
It would be incorrect (not to mention trite) to describe the film as a story about aging. It could more accurately be characterized as a story about having aged. The former carries an implication that things are getting worse, deteriorating like that sick dog. But things aren’t getting worse for Carol. They’re just different. Her dog is gone but she’s not. That’s just another truth of her life now. The dramatic tension comes from how Carol and Bill assess their aged lives differently. The fact of their limited time makes him decisive and her cautious.
Really, that proximity to death is the only important difference between the film’s older and younger characters. Minor things arise, like how young people go out and stay out later, but the main change is that the older folks are closer to the end and they know it. It’s hardly a spoiler to say the dog isn’t the only one who doesn’t make it out of the movie alive. Haley impresses by avoiding sap or lightweight uplift, instead being honest about how confusing and painful yet mundane it can be to lose someone.
But I’ll See You in My Dreams is not a movie about death any more than it’s about aging. At the risk of being corny, it’s a movie about life. It argues that all our experiences and relationships can’t be plotted along a linear graph. Rather, every single thing we’ve done and person we’ve met become a permanent aspect of who we are. Haley and his magnificent cast manage to impart all this while being funny and touching. That’s the final pleasant surprise in a movie full of them.