“Explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace.”
A warning to all who see this film: you will be telling and re-telling all the giddily awful jokes and one-liners within it to yourself and whoever will listen for days to come. Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me is a mixed bag of thin plotting, some uneven performances, and a few touching moments, but its elaborate jests are a laudable standout. As a relatively well-crafted, harmless dramedy, it satisfies.
The film stars New Zealand comedy goldmine Jemaine Clement as Nate, a self-doubting playwright, who hits rock bottom all at once and must move in to a retirement home community with his father Bob, played by the legendary Elliott Gould. Lowbrow yet brilliant jokes are Bob’s stock and trade, and Hoffman must be commended for the reverent way he realizes the elaborate scenarios the setups describe. Humor Me opens in striking monochrome, with vintage music and sound, all amusingly presented as if it is meant for a different film entirely, until Gould’s voiceover begins and it becomes clear this is all leading towards an elaborate punchline. These visuals return every time a particularly long-winded joke is delivered, and the effect is far and away the most memorable and creative aspect Humor Me has to offer. Not to imply that the film is otherwise dithering, far from it, yet nothing quite fits together as well as these scenes.
Clement is a pleasant lead, albeit with a slightly strangled delivery here and there, which can be forgiven as his American accent is not his natural lilt. Gould is certainly a standout for his layered portrayal of the aging jokester, especially in later scenes of conflict; two quite moving examples can be found in moments where Nate questions how Bob has moved on after his wife’s passing, for one, and most notably when they re-watch a VHS of Nate’s first play, which includes, and indicts, an all-too-familiar joking father who seems to ignore pressing problems within his own family. In scenes like these, the film explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace.
However, the weaker sides of the film are unfortunately hard to overlook. While the monochrome joke-telling segments are delightful, most of the rest of the comedic lines are just not all that funny. To paraphrase an ‘SNL’ (NBC’s Saturday Night Live) zinger, the lines are funny, but not “ha-ha” funny. The whole script is reminiscent of the kind of neurotic-chic off-Broadway play that Nate himself works on within the film, yet it is unclear whether Hoffman finds this style laughable or laudable. The title of Nate’s first play, A Crack In the Clouds, and the way he speaks about theatre in general, are so pretentious that one would think Hoffman is making a joke about derivative, self-important writing, yet the film itself has lines and scenarios just as irritatingly overwrought as the plays he seems to be mocking. One montage in particular, set to the song “Be Ok” by Ingrid Michaelson (who plays supporting love interest Allison fairly well) is just so twee I thought I would implode. Michaelson’s character, and the character of Nate’s ex-wife (played by Maria Dizzia), are also low points in the script; with the exception of some very amusing old ladies, most of the female characters are complete afterthoughts or stereotypes, particularly the ‘heartless ex-wife’ schtick, personified in a character so unbelievably cold and uncaring that one might reasonably think Hoffman has a serious hang-up about ex-wives.
Hoffman, previous to his filmmaking career, was well-known as the creator of popular podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes, which is everything it says on the tin. It comes as no surprise then that this, his feature debut, is basically Old Jews Telling Jokes: The Movie, but if that sounds up your street, then by all means give the overall pleasant Humor Me a go.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)
Go to Humor Me at the EIFF