The Humans Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Stephen Karam
Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, June Squibb.
The Humans is an adaptation of the 2016 Tony award winning drama written by Tony award winning playwright Stephen Karam, and it reworks many of the familiar tropes of this subgenre of the dysfunctional family gathering that is a favourite theme of many productions, such as Tracy Letts’ August Osage County and its ilk. Karam makes his feature film directorial debut in bringing his drama to the screen, but in many ways it still seems very theatrical in its staging and presentation.
Erik Blake (Richard Jenkins, from White House Down, etc) and his family gather for Thanksgiving at the Manhattan apartment of his youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, from Booksmart, etc) and her boyfriend Richard (Steve Yeun, from tv series The Walking Dead, etc). The depressing pre-WWII duplex is badly maintained, and there are creaks and other unsettling sounds, a sinister and unsettling rumbling from the pipes, strange noises and banging from the upstairs neighbours, there is water damage on the ceilings and walls, and the light bulbs burn out at times throwing the rooms into darkness. The apartment is located only a few blocks from where the World Trade Centre was located, and this brings back memories for Erik, who worked near that location when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He is nervous and fearful of the city. Both he and his wife Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) have travelled all the way from Scanton in Pennsylvania for the day and are quite judgemental about the condition of the apartment, unable to conceal their disappointment.
As the dinner progresses, secrets are revealed that heighten the tension and a few insults and scathing comments are exchanged that alter the mood from one of celebration to one of bitterness. Karam offers up a rather bleak view of the family dynamics here and he gives this domestic drama something of a gritty and darker edge. There is not much in the way of plot development, but the characters are revealed through the dialogue and their reactions.
The production design from veteran stage designer David Gropman (Hairspray, etc) is very good, and recreates the drab setting from the stage play, making the confined apartment almost another character. The sound design is also quite impressive and creates an ominous mood. Cinematographer Lol Crawley (Vox Lux, etc) uses a number of different angles to try and enliven the material and make the static setting more cinematic. He also frames characters through doorways and at the edge of the frame, which somehow adds to the off kilter feel of the material. But the confined set still feels stage bound and slightly claustrophobic.
The small cast are very good and deliver naturalistic performances. Houdyshell reprises her Tony award winning role as Deirdre and delivers a moving performance as she struggles to hide her sense of disappointment and resentment. Jenkins is nicely nuanced as Erik, who has trouble communicating his emotions, and delivers one of his best performances. Amy Schumer essentially plays it straight as Aimee, the lesbian daughter who is upset at the breakdown of a relationship and is worried that she may also lose her job as an attorney. Yeun brings a light and genial touch to his performance as the seemingly optimistic Richard. June Squibb (from Nebraska, etc) is given little to do as Richard’s elderly wheelchair bound mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s and spends much of the time sleeping.
Although this perceptive but bleak comedy/drama offers up insight into the human condition and human behaviour and everyday fears, The Humans is not a particularly enjoyable cinema experience as it still seems quite theatrical in its staging. This is a film of limited appeal. The Humans.