Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Film: The Humans

The Humans (c) A24

Film: The Humans 
In Cinemas and on Showtime

Premise: The Blake family of Scranton, PA, is spending Thanksgiving together, but this year, it’s in New York City with their daughter Bridgit (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). The similarities to Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April” from 2003 end there as that movie was more about the trip than the destination. This movie, like the Tony Award-winning play it’s based on, takes place entirely in the young couple’s Chinatown apartment, dilapidated and almost unlivable, but also boasts two levels with a spiral staircase so it’s a steal. Mom Diedre (Jayne Houdyshell) and Dad Erik’s (Richard Jenkins) main concern is Grandmother Momo (June Squibb), who’s in a wheelchair and is suffering from dementia. There’s also sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), a lawyer being laid off who just broke up with her girlfriend. In between the usual family tension and secrets that come out because of wine and beer, Erik is on edge because of a nightmare he recently had and all the noise the old building emits (and faulty electricals), half believing the apartment might have ghosts of its own. 

My Take: I saw the play on Broadway and thought it was a slight family show, but a wonderful mood piece. Directed with subtlety by Joe Mantello, the play only slightly hinted at the haunted house possibility, but Stephen Karam, the playwright who is now directing the film from his own script, starts everything at 10 and ramps it up from there. From squeaky doors and rattling pipes to lights going out and people sneaking up on others, you would think the film would devolve into a horror movie. Karam even does a jump scare with a pigeon in the window. This is such overkill that by the time the real nature of the film is revealed, I had already been desensitized by it all. It’s a shame because the film is so well acted that I wished we could have spent more time focused on the characters and not on the water stain in the ceiling. I was especially impressed by Amy Schumer, who has never been more naturalistic in any of her other films (though to be fair, she gets most of the funny one-liners), and Steven Yeun, who is in full regular guy role. Karam, who wrote one of my favorite plays, “Son of the Prophet,” is an interesting writer who feels such empathy for all his characters. I just think the movie would have been better served by a more seasoned director. As is, it’s still a perfectly fine dysfunctional Thanksgiving family movie. I just wish Karam left the Halloween vibes out of it. 

VIP:  Jayne Houdyshell. Houdyshell is the only holdover from the Broadway cast and you can tell she has lived with the character of Diedre for a long time and knows her very well. Her anguish at how her life is at this point in time is mixed in with all the pleasantries one puts on for the holiday, and it’s heartbreaking when her secrets are revealed. Patricia Clarkson was a Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the mother role in “Pieces of April” and I hope history repeats itself for Houdyshell, who won a Tony for the role on stage. Like Clarkson’s Joy in “April,” Houdyshell’s Diedre is not the most likeable, but she is the most relatable.

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