Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” is a fantastic work of theater. Is it a good movie?
It’s a fantastic work of theater.
“The Humans” is in theaters and on Showtime this week (it also screened last month at Austin Film Festival), and there’s oodles to like about Karam’s adaptation of his own Tony-winning play. For example, the opening credits cycle through keyholes of sky, piercing through tunnels created by high-rise buildings as seen from the ground. It’s tight and uncomfortable, unnerving and beautiful. It’s a great way to open up a very closed-in story.
That story: Retirement-age Scranton couple Erik and Dierdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) are visiting their daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), and her partner, Richard (Steven Yeun), in Manhattan for Thanksgiving. Along for the ride are their other adult daughter, Aimee (Amy Schumer), and Erik’s dementia-hobbled mother, Momo (June Squibb).
The holiday is supposed to be a loving reunion. It turns into a disorienting night of secrets, fears and resentments laid out like a roasted turkey.
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Houdyshell shows up an entire cast of greats and makes it look easy, playing a doting mom who gives way more than she gets. Everyone’s phenomenal, though, especially a sly, sensitive Schumer. Who doesn’t love a comedian playing drama? Sometimes life is even funnier when it’s serious, especially if you’ve got good, caustic timing.
The film takes place entirely in Brigid’s shabby new apartment, where radiators clang, wallpaper bubbles and caulk degrades. There’s a simmering unease to the space itself, which gives a fitting home to an exploration of all the ways we tear apart the ones we love. That lurking rot is also a handy and elegant stand-in for the unaddressed trauma this family has suffered, including during 9/11.
Unease pervades this film — and that becomes a problem, eventually. The camera peers through doors and out cloudy windows, afraid to approach. (What’s there?!) Lights go out. (Why?!) Characters steal away from the group for lingering moments of anxious exhalation or personal crisis. (Oh, something’s coming.) Momo mutters words that must mean something, but never do. (Sad; spooky.)
In a post-film Q&A at Austin Film Festival, Karam spoke about wanting to give “The Humans” life on the screen as a horror movie. It’s possible the transformation was too literal.
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Jump scares typically pay off, after all, and unless you’re afraid of withering dialogue that screams the theme — “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” one character says — the style starts to feel artificial after a while. Onscreen, the trappings of a midnight creature feature need a catharsis that “The Humans” is not interested in giving. Its slow-burn of human misery would be better in person.
The big screen might not be the perfect home for “The Humans.” It’s another high-profile film where you say after, “Oh, that was definitely a play first.” But hey, the tickets will be cheaper than Broadway.
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Jane Houdyshell, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer
Director: Stephen Karam
Rated: R language and some sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Watch: In theaters and on Showtime
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