‘Driveways’ review: One of Brian Dennehy’s last films is also one of his best

If you want to celebrate the life of legendary actor Brian Dennehy, who died last month at age 81, start with one of his final films: “Driveways.” His performance as a widowed veteran is right up there with his finest screen work, which makes his passing all the sadder.

For fans, the easy-to-embrace new dramedy can feel like meeting the man we thought we knew for the very first time. Gone is his gruff exterior, the comic chops and his incomparable facility with the muscular poetry of Eugene O’Neill. Dennehy’s character, Del, is a guy you wanna hug, and who will probably hug you right back.

He’s a sensitive Korean War vet, and the neighbor of new arrivals Kathy (Hong Chau) and her 8-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye). They’ve just moved to town to sell the home of Kathy’s sister, who recently died.

Cody, who’s so socially awkward he pukes when he’s stressed, is a shy outsider who forms a sweet friendship with Del. They both need it.

Kathy has her struggles, too. She learns that her sister was a hoarder, so getting the house on the market means confronting a loved one’s demons. Chau doesn’t overdo it as a single mom whose attention is understandably divided.

As the family is Asian, some might rush to compare the film to “Gran Torino,” in which Clint Eastwood not only said “Get off my lawn,” but did so while pointing a shotgun. Co-writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s movie, however, is much more natural than that and doesn’t rely on the dull cliche of the Grinch next door having his heart grow three sizes because of a tot.

Del is emotionally paralyzed, but not angry or vindictave. He’s caught in a fog. His wife is dead, and his friends at the VFW are succumbing to dementia. What unfolds is a story of mutual loneliness; of how a man in his eighties, despite a mountain of life experience, can feel the very same voids as an eight-year-old boy. And how a little kid can find more comfort in a Korean War vet than the “cool” people his own age. Jaye plays Cody sublimely, though he probably doesn’t realize it yet.

“Driveways” isn’t all sad though. A quiet game of bingo will earn your smile.

How rare is it that when a beloved actor dies, we can honestly say they were doing extraordinary work right ’til the end?

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