Film Review: Humor Me

Innocuous, dated father-son comedy that manages against all odds to be mildly appealing.
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Now, Humor Me. It’s an old-hat, hokey story clearly headed to well, precisely where it goes and yet despite itself (sentimental to the core) it boasts a quirky charm.

Nate (Jemaine Clement), a one-time successful playwright (or modestly so), has fallen on hard times. He is unable to finish his latest play, his agent (Bebe Neuwirth) has unceremoniously dropped him and his narcissistic wife (Maria Dizzia) has jumped ship too (with their young son in tow). Worse, he’s gone to seed, gaining weight and ignoring his decaying teeth; also, he’s impoverished. With no other place to go, he moves in with his widowed dad Bob (Elliott Gould), now residing in a New Jersey retirement community, Cranberry Bog (cutesy!), whom he hasn’t seen in years. It’s an estranged relationship at best.

Bob derails all emotional issues with Borscht Belt gags, often off-color and rarely funny, though they endlessly amuse him and some of his aging cronies. Many of these groaners are dramatized—if that’s the right word—through broadly performed black-and-white film snippets, one assumes intended to evoke old comic movies in the vaudevillian vein. Marking Sam Hoffman’s directorial debut, Humor Me is heir to his successful web series, book and well-attended Off-Broadway play, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

Bob’s refusal to even talk about his late wife’s passing is especially disturbing to Nate and the latter’s chosen career is yet another source of contention between them. Bob is simply not impressed with his son’s playwriting—past awards and accolades notwithstanding—if it fails to bring in any income. Nate feels underappreciated and misunderstood.

After landing and losing several menial jobs at the residence—e.g., folding towels, mopping floors—Nate is brought onboard to direct the home’s musical theatre production of The Mikado, starring a talent-free biddy brigade (Priscilla Lopez, Annie Potts, Le Clanché du Rand and Rosemary Prinz), including one old bird (du Rand) who lusts after him in a comic and grotesque way. PC this isn’t. One almost has to admire Hoffman’s brazen celebration of tropes so stale and past their prime it becomes an act of defiance coupled with calculation—he knows what his targeted audience likes—and his own nostalgia for arguably a more innocent time.   

Oddly enough, it all comes together (within those parameters). Spoiler alert: With Dad’s directorial help, the senior gals turn in high-level, professional performances. Hint: Crude interchanges right out of burlesque have joined forces with Gilbert & Sullivan.

The show is a hit; Nate finds a new girlfriend; and he’s finally reconciled with Bob, whose expression of grief for Nate’s mom is unexpectedly poignant. And to top it all off, the du Rand character is reunited with an age-appropriate boyfriend.

The performances are excellent: Gould as the shuffling old codger who is more layered than his surface shtick might suggest; Clement (best known for HBO’s “Flight of theConchords”), the sensitive lost soul; and Neuwirth as Nate’s hard-edged agent. All in all, a fine ensemble cast.

That said, caveat emptor: This flick is not for all palates.