“I’ll See You In My Dreams” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:35, three stars out of four.
Like its main character, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” takes a little while to let us in. Carol (Blythe Danner) is a widow living a comfortable life alone in Los Angeles, her solitary life around her arranged just as she pleases. Her old friends (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, June Squibb) urge her to move into their retirement community — not because she needs to be looked after, but because it’s more fun than living alone.
When her beloved old dog falls ill, she takes her to the vet, and the dog has to be put down. Director and co-writer Brett Haley keeps the camera focused on Carol’s face, pained but inscrutable, during the procedure. Later on in the film, Carol confesses that she was sad at her animal companion’s passing, but not as sad as she thought she’d be. In the sunset of her years, having lived 20 years alone, she wonders if she’s lost so much that she’s now lost the capacity to even feel loss.
Haley’s film is about Carol slowly opening herself back up to the world, with the help of unlikely connections forged with two very different men. Haley previously made a microbudget gem called “The New Year,” about a capable young woman wasting her life away working in her hometown bowling alley. In both films (this one co-written with Marc Basch), Haley shows a deep compassion for his characters as well as a respect for them, allowing them to reveal their inner selves naturally, on their own timetables.
Carol is jogged out of her routine first by Lloyd (Martin Starr) a failed poet and songwriter who works as Carol’s pool cleaner. (And yes, the movie has great fun subverting the softcore MILF-and-the-pool-boy cliches.) Aimless and disarmingly blunt, Lloyd manages to get past Carol’s protective shell, and the two become drinking buddies, even trying karaoke night at the local bar. (Carol does a scintillating “Cry Me A River” that hints at her old life as a singer, long ago.)
The other man in Carol’s life is Bill (Sam Elliott), a confirmed bachelor Carol meets at the golf club. With a wolfish grin and an unlit cigar forever dangling from his mouth, Bill is a pretty dashing old guy, and the two start dating almost against her will. The film is wonderful at showing the two of them connecting, with Bill’s folksy reserve the perfect foil for Carol’s prim reticence. When he leans across the dinner table and drawls “I think I like you, a little bit,” it contains the passion of a hundred “You complete me” speeches.
How Carol navigates these new relationships is the heart of “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which takes the Nancy Meyers-type cliches of romantic comedies about older people and turns them into something honest and funny. Danner makes the most of such a wonderful lead role, unpacking the layers of Carol’s character, the wry tilt to her mouth as she faces the hardships of getting older. It’s not much fun to get old, and it’s scary to try to push yourself out of your well-ordered life and let yourself be vulnerable. But, as the old joke goes, it beats the alternative.