Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.
Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb
Director: Stephen Karam
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I admit it, I admit it. When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over. It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up. Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour. I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why. Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.
Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so. The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to. Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.
The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting. While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have. Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year.
Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law. Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues. Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers. When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.
It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers. It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show.
Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well. Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive. The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway. Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time. While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.
I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen. It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.