The story of playwright Nate Kroll (Jemaine Clement), the tragicomic protagonist of the touching indie Humor Me, begins with one very bad day. First, he loses his Broadway producer (an icy Bebe Neuwirth, slightly wasted here), and then his wife, Nirit (Maria Dizzia), leaves him for a billionaire within the span of 24 hours. The fallout leaves him with no choice but to move into the guest room at his father’s retirement community, aptly named Cranberry Bog. Once living with his dad Bob (Elliot Gould), Nate tries to find a way forward and how he might capitalize on what he sees as his own lost potential.
Humor Me sings best in its quieter moments, where Nate finds unexpected connection and insight among the members of the retirement community. This is his story of self-discovery, a touching tale of a man learning how to believe in himself and appreciate the smaller struggles of those around him. For a playwright, he shockingly lacks much insight about himself—but it’s refreshing that his journey isn’t so much one of finding the way back to professional success as it is learning to appreciate the everyday moments and separate emotional journeys of others. Clement channels his wry hangdog humor into a slightly more grounded performance than he often gives. His charm and absurdist tendencies help elevate Nate from a potentially self-centered man-child to a lost soul who is genuinely compelling.
While at Cranberry Bog, Nate ends up directing an abridged version of “The Mikado” starring three older women portrayed by Annie Potts, Le Clanché du Rand, and Rosemary Prinz. These rehearsal sequences bring joy and hilarity in equal measure, weaving in several romantic threads that handle questions of aging and sexuality gracefully, acknowledging that desire and a thirst for intimacy don’t wane with youthful beauty. Nate takes genuine joy in his rehearsals and this jumps off the screen, resulting in a buoyant and bemusing climax. The three women play off each other with vibrant comedic timing, and with brief screen time, Annie Potts proves yet again why she’s always a sheer joy to watch.
Gould both slightly revives the fatherly type he perfected in his recurring role as Mr. Geller on Friends and brings a gentler subtlety to his role as a man who masks grief and emotion with humor. His third act turn and the revelations of many untold depths and long-buried wounds give him the opportunity to infuse what could be a caricatured joke dispenser with real humanity. Executed in elaborate black-and-white sequences featuring Gould’s voiceover, this jokes are brought to life with a strange amount of attention that ultimately feels designed to fall flat (or at the very least, are just not funny).
It must also be said, in a time when so much energy is dedicated to discussion of women’s roles onscreen, the female characters here are largely pale character sketches, present only to tear down Nate’s self-esteem or build it back up in his series of learning moments. We get little to no interiority from them, and while their hopes and dreams might be mentioned in passing, their existence is designed only to support (or hinder) his journey. Ingrid Michaelson is lovely as Allison, a recovering drug addict living under her mother’s watch. Yet, she isn’t much more than an edgier take on the manic pixie dream girl trope.
Despite its title, Sam Hoffman’s coming-of-middle-age story is far more moving and charming in its fleeting tender moments than its out-and-out humorous ones. It finds its heart in quieter beats that coalesce into a sweet tale about fulfilling our potential, learning to listen, and the importance of never giving up on ourselves. The film also flirts with moments of absurdity — a montage involving power walking (and other retirement home pursuits), a chase sequence featuring a vespa and a golf cart, and a tongue-in-cheek take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids” performed in full costume by a trio of women over 60. These surreal segments help lend an amusing air to the proceedings, elevating some of Nate’s navel-gazing to a more Chekhovian take on the heartbreaking absurdity of life. If the film is a bit thin in places, particularly in regards to female character development, it casts such a lingering sense of warmth over you it becomes hard to resist its effusive charms. B