Humor Me review Jemaine Clement Elliott GouldYear: 2018
Director(s): Sam Hoffman
Writer(s): Sam Hoffman
Region of Origin: US

Rating: n/a
Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: A struggling playwright loses it all and attempts to reconnect to his estranged father.

I’m a firm believer that deep down, comedy is our way of coping with the trauma, pain and failure in our lives, and that’s exactly what Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me captures so well. Though safe and a bit old-fashioned, Hoffman’s story has a big heart, irreverent in its own way and unburdened from the brash vulgarity of most modern comedies. Spinning off of his Old Jews Telling Jokes web series, the director has created a wonderful film about fathers, sons and rolling with the punchlines. Jemaine Clement grounds himself to great results, and together with Elliott Gould and Ingrid Michaelson, composes a cast that captures charm and grace.

Nate’s (Jemaine Clement) having a bit of a rough time. Once a rising playwright, he lives in the shadow of his more successful brother, his newest production is stalled, and his wife has just taken their son and dumped him for a millionaire. With no place to go, he reluctantly comes home to his dad, Bob (Elliott Gould), now living in a retirement community. Once there, however, old wounds are reopened, as the two have never quite come to terms with his mother’s death. Bob constantly answers Nate with jokes, referring to their punchlines as ways to deal with their constant spats. As Nate struggles to reconnect, he decides to help some women in the community as they attempt to mount an adaptation of The Mikado, a famous opera. Searching for a way to get back on his feet, Nate learns the hard way that nothing ever goes the way we plan.

The best thing about the film is its sincerity. Hoffman plays things pretty straight, finding low-key comic hilarity within the mundane. In that sense, the film stays pretty tethered to realism, eschewing sensationalism for a more focused, personal story. In addition, Hoffman knows when to subvert genre tropes, leaning into certain ideas, only to divert in ways that feel true to each character. From the comedic interludes that give Bob’s jokes a bit of visual flair, to Nate’s unwitting immersion into his father’s retirement community, there’s never a dull moment, and a sadness laced between the heart that makes genuine character interactions resonate.

Humor Me review Jemaine Clement Ingrid MichaelsonAnother thing that keeps the film afloat is a cast that can balance laughs and deeply felt pain. Clement pushes his a lot of his quirk aside for Nate, opting to trade silliness for dramatic heft. To be clear, Clement’s comedic timing is still wholly intact, but it’s in service to a character who is genuinely hurting. Even as someone who is slightly unlikeable, Clement’s charm breaks through. As his estranged father, Gould’s Bob is a shining light. By design, we experience Gould with a bit of distance, yet we fully understand him by the story’s end, thanks to his ability to deliver punchlines (both thematically and literally) with a tinge of poignancy. Singer Ingrid Michaelson also stands out as a sympathetic mirror to Nate, drifting and floating through indifference. Michaelson holds her own and leaves a mark with her presence. Lastly, Annie Potts, Le Clanche du Gilbert and Rosemary Prinz play a trio of aging thespians, all of whom take to Nate and strike up an endearing relationship.

Humor Me is a fitting look at how life never turns out the way we expect. This concept isn’t new to anyone, but Hoffman’s film is a reminder that none of us live in a bubble, and that none of us need to go through our struggles alone. Sometimes going for help feels like a large hurdle, but a rewarding one, and conversely, Hoffman’s film celebrates the frailties that make us who we are, and that understanding this fundamental divide is what ultimately connects us.

SG