‘Humans’ struggle with Thanksgiving

By Jocelyn Novick | News agency

Laughter and tears. Fun and disappointment. Affection and insults. Anxiety, enmities, too much food, too much alcohol.

In other words: thanks.

This year, Thanksgiving stories are in the news about COVID, and how families will deal with intergenerational mixing. None of that is in Stephen Crum’s “Humans,” a movie made entirely of one Thanksgiving meal and based on a play written nearly a decade ago. But another plague looms over the Blake family, at whose table we join for 108 minutes: economic pain. A struggling middle class. The American Dream is in tatters.

Here Karam is adapting his Tony Award-winning work, a play based on the 2007-2008 financial crisis. And in doing so he achieves something very rare: it makes an intimate and devastating family drama even more intimate and devastating.

Somehow, the sense of impending doom, the feeling that dinner is heading to a dark end, is more palpable on the screen. As is claustrophobia. If the theatrical version feels uncomfortably confined to one apartment, the effect is more intense here as the camera gets ever closer, sharpening not only on faces but on hidden corners, and even spots on the ceiling and walls, as if you were saying: There’s no trafficker.

If it sounds like a horror movie, it’s probably because Karam said he’s a huge fan of the genre. Thus, although the plot is outwardly unrelated to horror, the elements are present: mysterious sounds, stressful moments, and frightening dreams.

The Venue: A ramshackle apartment in Chinatown, where Brigid (Benny Feldstein) and boyfriend Richard (Stephen Yun) have invited their parents, Eric (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jane Houdichel), grandmother Momo (John Squibb), and sister Amy (Amy Schumer) for Thanksgiving. The paint is peeling off, the pipes are exposed, the plaster is bloated and the toilet seat is broken. Also, there is rarely any furniture. But hey, there is a spiral staircase, and although the basement is windowless, the place is a steal.

Brigid’s parents, middle-class, Catholic, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, didn’t realize it. Eric worries that Brigid lives near ground zero – we’ll learn about the trauma of 9/11 – and in a flood zone, and as for Deirdre, she can’t help but comment on the lack of point of view. Brigid protests: “Mom, it’s an inner yard!” whose mother laughs bogusly: “Maybe we can all take a walk in the inner yard after dinner.”

There is, surely, a symbolism in this inner courtyard – not only because it is a staple of urban dwellings, but because it is closed off from the outside world, like the Blakes, for the hours we spend with them.

It can be difficult to pull off a crew of six if there is a weak link. Fortunately, there is none. Moreover, the banter between family members feels more than real – one feels that these people really know each other forever. A sweet surprise is Schumer’s simple, touching performance as Amy, who suffers from ulcerative colitis so severe that she misses her chance to be a partner in her law firm. Her friend has left her, too, as we learned in a heartbreaking phone call she made while on a break from dinner.

Brigid (the super charismatic Feldstein) is more fortunate in love; Richard is a loyal and loyal friend, who even cooks the holiday meal. But like her sister, Brigid is struggling economically – she’s lost several scholarships to start her music career, and has a mountain of student debt. Brigid is extroverted and fun but when pressed, she can be mischievous – especially in regards to her mother’s weight.

As for my mom, the brilliant Houdyshell deepened her performance from the theatrical version – the only surviving version of this production – which she rightfully won as Tony. Deirdre is outwardly optimistic and resilient but can record sadness in an instant and humiliation as well. As Eric, Jenkins masterfully balances the stubborn pride of a trusted patriarch with the compromising fear that everything is falling apart.

Everyone at the table suffers from economic instability — Brigid and Amy because of jobs that never took off, and Eric and Deirdre because their long careers, like theirs at a private school and their job as an office manager, are threatened by various reasons. Then there’s Momo, Eric’s elderly mother (a Squibb influencer), who has advanced dementia and lives with her son because full-time care is expensive.

We excluded Richard, the friend, because in five years he will inherit his family’s money–which has earned him disdain for Eric, who also mocks the money Richard and Brigid spend on both healthy food and treatment: “If you’re so miserable, why try to live to forever? “

Controversial moments like these promise a tougher evening as time goes on. But they are nothing compared to the scathing revelations that come late in the game.

However – it is a family. Love is experienced, but ultimately unconditional. As the bruises spread into the night, there’s only one thing we seem to know for sure: They’ll gather around the table, some at a table, again next year. It’s tempting to ask for another invitation.


3 stars out of 4

Evaluation: R (for some subjects and sexual language)

running time: 108 minutes


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