Laughter and tears. Fun and disappointment. Affection and insults. Anxiety, hostilities, too much food, too much alcohol.
In other words: Thanksgiving.
This year’s Thanksgiving stories in the news focus on COVID and how families will navigate the intergenerational mix. There is none of this in Stephen Karam’s “Humans,” a movie made entirely of a Thanksgiving meal, based on a play written almost ten years ago. But another scourge hangs over the Blake family, whose table we join for 108 minutes: economic pain. A struggling middle class. The American dream in tatters.
Karam is adapting his own Tony award-winning work here, a play inspired by the financial crisis of 2007-2008. In doing so, he achieves something quite rare: he makes an intimate and devastating family drama even more intimate and devastating.
Either way, the feeling of impending doom, the feeling that dinner is heading for a grim ending, is even more tangible on screen. Just like claustrophobia. While the stage version seemed uncomfortably confined to a single apartment, the effect is even more extreme here as the camera gets closer and closer, sharpening not only faces but also hidden corners, even spots on the ceiling and walls. , as if to say: there is no leak.
If this sounds like a horror movie, maybe it’s because Karam said he’s a huge fan of the genre. And so, even though the plot seemingly has nothing to do with horror, the elements are there: mysterious noises, restless moments, spooky dreams.
The place: A dilapidated apartment in Chinatown, where Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) invited her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), grandmother Momo (June Squibb) ) and her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) for Thanksgiving. The paint is peeling, the pipes are exposed, the plaster is bulging, and the toilet seat is broken. In addition, there is hardly any furniture. But hey, there is a spiral staircase, and so even though the ground floor is windowless, the place is a steal.
Not that Brigid’s solidly bourgeois Catholic parents of Scranton, Pa., Recognize him. Erik worries that Brigid is living near zero point – we’ll learn of her own 9/11 trauma – and in a flooded area, and as for Deirdre, she can’t help but comment on the lack of sight. Brigid protests: âMum, it’s an interior courtyard! At what mum jokes with false haughtiness: “Maybe we could all take a walk in the inner courtyard after dinner.”
There is surely some symbolism in this inner courtyard – not just because it’s a staple of urban homes, but because it’s closed from the outside world, like the Blakes are, for the hours we spend with them.
A six-person cast can be difficult to achieve if there is a weak link. Fortunately, there is none. Plus, the jokes between family members seem more than genuine – it feels like these people have really known each other forever. A nice surprise is Schumer’s low-key and moving performance as Aimee, who suffers from ulcerative colitis so severe that she lost her chance to be a partner in her law firm. His girlfriend has left her too, as we learn during a heartbreaking phone call she makes during an after dinner break.
Brigid (an extremely handsome Feldstein) is luckier in love; Richard is a loyal and devoted boyfriend, who even cooks the holiday meal. But like her sister, Brigid is struggling economically – she lost several scholarships to launch her music career and has a mountain of student debt. Brigid is outgoing and pleasant, but when pushed she can be hurtful, especially with her mother’s weight.
As for mom, the formidable Houdyshell even deepened her performance from the stage version – the only holdover from that production – for which she rightly won a Tony. Sa Deirdre is outwardly optimistic and resilient, but can register grief in an instant, as well as humiliation. As Erik, Jenkins masterfully balances the stubborn pride of a bossy patriarch with the overwhelming fear that everything will fall apart.
Everyone around the table suffers from economic instability – Brigid and Aimee because of careers that never took off, Erik and Deirdre because their long-standing jobs, his at a private school and his as a head of office, are threatened for various reasons. Then there’s Erik’s elderly mother Momo (a loving Squibb), who has advanced dementia and lives with her son because full-time care is just too expensive.
We left out Richard, the boyfriend, because in five years he will inherit his family’s money, earning him contempt for Erik, who also laughs at the money Richard and Brigid spend on both for diet food and therapy: are you so miserable, why are you trying to live forever? “
Controversial moments like this promise a more hectic night as the hours go by. But they are nothing compared to the stinging revelation that comes at the end of the game.
And yet, it is a family. Love is tried, but ultimately it is unconditional. As the bruised family scatter into the night, there is only one thing we seem to be sure of: They will gather around the table, a table, again next year. It’s tempting to ask for another invitation.
âThe Humans,â an A24 version, was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of American for âSexual Material and Languageâ. Duration: 108 minutes. Three out of four stars.
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