Welcome to dysfunction junction, and pass the mashed potatoes.

Courtesy of A24

Movie actors who appear in plays often love to talk about the thrill of stage work, the intimacy and urgency of shedding all the Hollywood noise and just, you know, living inside the words. So it makes sense that several of them signed up for Stephen Karam's screen adaptation of his lauded 2015 chamber piece The Humans (in theaters Nov. 24), a four-time Tony winner and Pulitzer nominee. Why not get the best of both? But the medium has misplaced Karam's message, maybe, or just lost it in translation: On film his family drama feels both tense and airless, a story in search of a release it never really finds.

It's Thanksgiving, and the Blakes have gathered at the Manhattan apartment of Brigid (Impeachment's Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Minari star Steven Yeun), a young couple whose part-time jobs in academia and bartending don't come close to explaining how they can afford a massive duplex in Chinatown, with or without the rumbling pipes and water stains. Brigid's working-class Catholic parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), in from Scranton with Erik's nearly catatonic mother (a mostly wasted June Squibb), aren't short on critiques of the new place, even though its echoing rooms are still so empty there's little more in them than a few card tables and a projection of a crackling fire on the wall. ("It's atmosphere!" Richard beams, unheeded).

Brigid's older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), a lawyer who lives in Philadelphia, is kinder about the place, but she's got her own preoccupations — chiefly the partner-track job she's just been told she's being passed over for, a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and an ex-girlfriend who sounds less than enthused to be hearing from her on the holidays. Somehow still, she's often the lightest person in the room, the social lubricant at a "party" whose long pauses and stilted conversations signal the iceberg nubs of larger issues lurking underneath. In the meantime, their conversations stay mostly in safe innocuous loops: work, traffic, the price of candles or the advanced cancers of elderly Scranton neighbors.

The Humans
Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, and Beanie Feldstein in 'The Humans'
| Credit: A24

Erik in particular seems preoccupied, gazing fretfully out the window and pulling at his beer, his mind full of some fraught secret that Deirdre quietly urges him to share. It will all come out eventually and abruptly, in a late confessional burst. By then the icebergs have begun to melt in other ways, as talk turns more openly to dreams and depression and private heartaches. The specter of 9/11 is raised again and again too, a day that Erik and Aimee experienced together but only one of them seems to have moved on from.

Cinematographer Lol Crawley (The OA) intersperses it all with artful close-ups of empty doorways and elevator shafts, a cacophony of haunted violins by famed contemporary composer Nico Muhly keeping score. The movie's framing suggests a larger American tragedy — fate, loneliness, dislocation — at work, a sort of grand somber weight beneath the polite questions and awkward pauses. But the cast's chemistry never quite gels beyond their staged circumstances, and too much of the dialogue replicates actual life without finding a deeper resonance: the rambling anecdotes, latent passive aggressions, and aimless small talk of ordinary people just living their lives. You could go to a theater for that, buy a ticket and sit in the dark. Or you could probably find it for free, like so many will this Thursday, at your own dinner table. Grade: C+

Related content: