I caught Stephen Karam‘s The Humans (A24, 11.24) early yesterday afternoon. It won’t open for another six or seven weeks, but it was reviewed out of Toronto so it’s fair to jump in.
This is a highly respectable, surprisingly “cinematic” adaptation of Karam’s 2016 play, which he’s filmed unconventionally by emphasizing distance and apartness and narrow hallways and deep shadows, with a particular emphasis on material rot inside the apartment walls and a general sense of architectural foreboding and claustrophobia.
All the performances are top-notch, especially Jane Houdyshell‘s. Her performance as the maritally betrayed, care-worn mother of two grown daughters (played by Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer) is almost Oscar-level. It needs an extra “acting” scene or two, but she’s very good.
As usual I had trouble understanding all of Feldstein’s dialogue, as she always seems to emphasize emotional tonality and a certain sing-song manner of speaking as opposed to adhering to the old-fashioned practice of (I know this is a bad word but I’m going to say it anyway) diction.
Oh, and I didn’t believe for a single millisecond that South Korean heartthrob Stephen Yeun would partner with Feldstein, a seriously overweight woman in her late 20s…a woman who is headed for serious health problems down the road if she doesn’t follow in her brother’s path and drop some serious pounds. Feldstein and Yeun just aren’t a match, not in the actual world that I’ve been living in for several decades, but along with “presentism” and color-blind casting it’s also become a “thing” to cast obese actors in this or that role and then require their fellow cast members to pretend that obesity is fine and normal and “who cares?”
Schumer is fine as the depressed older sister.
The warmest emotional moment comes when the murmuring, blank-faced, Alzheimer-afflicted June Squibb (as grandma) joins in and says grace. Twice. This plus the Thanksgiving “what we’re thankful for” moments at the table are the only emotional touchstones in the whole film.
Richard Jenkins, Houdyshell’s husband, confesses to having lost his job (and therefore — did I hear this wrong? — his pension and insurance) due to an apparently brief affair with a coworker. In short, after being with a company for X number of years, they decided to cut his head off and destroy his life because of a single workplace sexual episode. And then the two daughters, after hearing of this, have to lay their #MeToo-ish judgments on withered old dad, along with their natural resentment for his having hurt their mother’s feelings, etc.
May I say something? 74 year-old Jenkins is too old to have had an affair. The workout club manager he played in Burn After Reading, maybe, or the guy in The Visitor or the gay FBI agent in Flirting With Disaster but his Humans dad is way, way past it. Grey haired, paunchy, neck wattle…forget it. In movies as in life you’re allowed to have crazy extramarital affairs up until your early 60s (if you look good), but not beyond that.
Let’s be honest here — this is an “artfully” shot (oooh, look…80% of the time Karam keeps the camera a good 20 to 30 feet away from the actors!) but VERY morose film about some seriously depressed people whose lives are almost certainly on the way down with no hope of escape or redemption. It isn’t long before you feel stuck — imprisoned — in this apartment, and in Karam’s play. No tension, no gathering story strands….it’s just slow-paced conversational misery and confession and gloom.
The Humans is certainly not comedic. Yes, there’s an element of horror in the building itself — it’s a terrible, TERRIBLE place to have a Thanksgiving dinner in, much less reside in, what with the groanings and stompings and filthy windows and pus bubbles and canker sores on the walls. And it’s not just this family of seven that’s stuck in this horrible environment — we’re all stuck in it, and there’s no getting out.
I started looking at my watch around the one-hour mark. The final 48 minutes were in and out, but they mostly felt like Dante’s Inferno. The Humans runs one hour and 48 minutes. It feels, minimally, like a running time of two hours and 48 minutes.
I can see (or imagine) how The Humans worked as a one-act play, but it’s a respectable death trip as a film. Seven people swallowed up in the abyss of their own miseries, and by the abyss of that wretched Chinatown apartment. Don’t misunderstand — Karam’s direction has integrity and is obviously a visual concept film that sticks in your mind for this reason, but regular human beings (i.e., not film critics or lah-lah industry types) will most likely HATE IT. Well, they’ll “respect” it but will feel enormously relieved when it’s over. As I was.