Written by Patrick Hao
The number one hackneyed complaint that all critics make about plays adapted into movies is that it is too stagey. Stephen Karam seemed to have taken those criticisms to heart when he decided to adapt his own Tony Award-Winning play, The Humans, into a feature film. Karam’s adaptation opens with a low-angle shot of the towering Chinatown apartment building that the film takes place in. It’s the first of several invocations of 9/11 throughout the film.
The play ran for 95-minutes on Broadway. In a smart move, the film does not run for much longer than that as well. Not much has changed for the adaptation. The film still follows one family Thanksgiving in a two-story, crappy apartment in New York City. The apartment belongs to Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). They have just moved to this apartment and lack furniture due to a mishap with the moving crew. Coming to attend Thanksgiving are Brigid’s parents, Mark (Richard Jenkins) and Diedre (Jayne Houdyshell), her grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s (June Squibb), and newly single and about to be fired sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer).
Like all family reunions, Thanksgiving from hell movies, this one features numerous squabbles, nagging, passive aggression, sarcasm, and bitter revelations, all with naturalistic performances from all the actors. Brigid is insecure with her lot in life. She is a creative who must make ends meet by bartending. Aimee is about to lose her job as a junior partner at her law firm and just ended a year-long relationship. Mark is dealing with the fallout of 9/11 and his own ineffectual masculinity. Meanwhile, Diedre’s own insecurities with her weight and lot in life are extended to her children.
All of this seems like a normal affair for a Broadway play. Karam is notable for his replication of normal human patter. He is also incredible at putting weight on every pregnant pause for its maximum impact. The ensemble cast is also helpful in delivering the undertones of every line. Feldstein’s natural emphatic exuberance being knocked down by the subtle drags of Houdyshell and the caustic resignation of Schumer makes for an especially fun dynamic.
Karam however intends to suffocate the characters with creeping dread and anxiety. The apartment aches at every movement and rumbles from the exposed pipes and heat. His camera fixates on characters for protracted periods of time, lulling the audience, allowing Karam to use sudden dialogue like jump scares. Often the empty apartment seems to be almost engulfing the characters on screen. It’s no secret that The Humans is going for a brutal mix of Repulsion and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
While Karam is impressive in how he’s able to layout the confines of the apartment, his stylistic choices become overbearing and discordant with the naturalism that he has his actors embrace. Other films that have trotted in the similar stylistic and thematic territory – the exquisite digital filmmaking of Pieces of April or the suffocating horror of Krisha – were able to find a better balance in the two. If anything, the style he chooses is successful in the ability it depicts the constant dissociation one uses to survive. The vacant stares are a result of defense mechanisms.
There is much to like in Karam’s adaptation of his own play. But it also feels like a playwright trying too hard to prove his bonafides as a filmmaker. Maybe instead of focusing on the bumps in the night, The Humans would have been better served at creating a lump in our throats.
The Humans Trailer
The Humans is streaming on Showtime.