Sam the Man

I noticed a typo in this week’s column just now, something I first assumed was an editor’s error. Surely I wouldn’t write “Alex” Baldwin. I’m pretty familiar with Alec Baldwin.

But it turned out to be all on me, for some strange reason. Maybe a suggestion from spellcheck, but as I typed it right now I noticed my fingers automatically hitting the “x” and not the “c,” and again right this second. Go figure.

Here’s the column, anyway. No surprises, I would think.

What did surprise me was I’ll See You in My Dreams. But first a word about podcasts.

I’ve been listening to pods for over 10 years. The first was the Slate Political Gabfest, but as various radio shows started offering episodes in a podcast format I gathered quite a few.

The problem with listening, for me, is that I have to be moving. I have no patience for sitting and listening, and probably because I’ve been walking and listening forever. And since my walking has been pretty light this winter and spring, I’m left with listening while working around the house. This summer should explode my opportunities, but meanwhile I try to be selective, given that I only seem to find a few hours a week when my legs are moving consistently.

I end up picking and choosing, then, based on topic or subject interviewed. Occasionally I’ll subscribe to a new pod just because I want to hear a particular episode, sometimes keeping it around and sometimes jettisoning them quickly.

I saw a short one that interested me the other day, although I doubt I’ll continue to listen. Too much to do, too little interest. But Sam Elliott? I’ll listen.

It was a nice interview, and surprising in what it covered considering that Sam tends to speak slowly. You think? He was promoting his new film, The Hero, written with him in mind and apparently a gift for all of us.

He mentioned another film, though, by the “Hero” writer/director, Brett Haley, and that was I’ll See You In My Dreams. I was a little intrigued, and found it streaming on Amazon Prime. Stream away, then.

Sam Elliott is a good actor. He’s appeared in nearly 100 films over nearly 50 years, and a slew of television. His voice is everywhere, as is his moustache (favorite reference is in Grace & Frankie, when Sam Waterston says, “There are only 10 men in the world who can pull off that moustache, and he’s nine of them”).

He’s not my favorite, or close to it, but when he appears my eyes are drawn to the screen and pretty much stay there. I was ready for as much Sam as I could get.

The movie stars Blythe Danner (and ditto for her; always a treat, a reminder of what a special actress she’s always been and getting a little Meet the Fockers taste out of my mouth) as Carol Peterson, a southern California woman in her early 70s (just taking a guess here; the chronology of this character is confusing). A former jazz singer and then teacher, she’s now comfortably retired on her husband’s life insurance, a small benefit from being widowed, suddenly and tragically, 20 years before. She lives quietly in a nice, unremarkable house, alone but for her dog, Hazel; an apparently slow, a little dull and fully predictable life.

And she’s lonely, especially after her beloved Hazel dies after 14 years. She strikes up an unusual friendship with the guy who comes to clean her pool, played by Martin Starr in really the key characterization of the film. Without Starr, it’s a soap opera. With him, there are enough crackling elements to keep my eyes from glazing a bit.

The soap opera is still there. The film is clear-eyed about mortality, and death shows up in various forms (both past and present) to remind us in case we forget. YOLO and all that, we get it.

Sam Elliott murmurs, “Bittersweet” at one point, in the middle of a master class on how to listen supportively while male. It’s a bit much, and hamstrings Elliott’s wry side, but that’s the word. It’s a bittersweet story, saved by the actors from a snoozy fate.

I enjoyed it, even as I turned it off three-quarters through and only finished a couple of hours later, feeling incomplete (didn’t help that I looked the film up before I watched and so got the big plot points ahead of time). Danner was a joy to watch, Starr was amazing, and the supporting cast all got their moments, particularly Mary Kay Place, who shows up in these things playing a woman of a certain age and always seems 20 years younger than she’s supposed to be.

As does Ms. Danner, who does get a chance to play with wry. This is a showcase for her and she elevates the film with just her presence, allowing us to understand how baffling aging can be to someone standing still for 20 years.

It’s not so much a showcase for Sam, although if you like watching him you won’t be disappointed. If we share the skepticism of Carol, who more than once questions his lack of romantic partners (this guy should be swarmed wherever he goes), his character is grounded and wise. His initial appearances belie the character we’d come to know, but why say more? If you like Sam Elliott, and I’m not sure we have anything to talk about if you don’t, you’ll want to watch I’ll See You in My Dreams.

Keep an eye out for Martin Starr, too. He’s done a lot over the past decade, from Party Down to Adventureland to his current Silicon Valley role. This helps explain why.

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