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'The Humans' review: Stagey adaptation leaves viewer uneasy and unsatisfied

Courtesy of A24


Written and directed by Stephen Karam, and based on his Tony Award winning play, “The Humans” is a stagey adaptation that flirts with several genres before falling apart at the seams. Part horror, part drama and occasionally comical, “The Humans” is a study in existential dread, one making the characters ask themselves what is the creaking noise above: Is it the rowdy neighbor? Or Is something festering in the pipes? The cast of six, made up of Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, and June Squibb, try haggling these conundrums while slinging passive aggressive remarks towards each other as they gather around the table in a rundown duplex during Thanksgiving. Like the central location-which cinematographer Lol Crawley ingeniously maneuvers the camera around-“The Humans” is icy, broken, and leaves you wanting just a little bit more.

From the opening frame and the unique musical cues, “The Humans” already feels out of balance. We watch as Brigid (Feldstein) and Richard (Yeun) are starting the next phase of their life by moving into a battered and bruised duplex in New York’s Chinatown. Brigid has invited the family over for the inaugural dinner in the new pad even though it’s riddled with leaky ceilings, unpacked boxes, a shoddy spiral staircase, and bubbly walls ready to burst at any moment. Oh, and the toilet seat is broken. In these earlier scenes, “The Humans” is content with sauntering through the motions, filling holes with quirky small talk and Squibb’s incapacitated Momo spewing gibberish nobody can understand. The family presents themselves as lower-middle class although patriarch Erik (Jenkins) has taught at a private Catholic school for 28 years which floated his kids through school tuition free and is planning on making additions to a lake house. Then there’s the duplex where, despite the blemishes, is very spacious and I would imagine not cheap. It’s never explained how Brigid and Richard, who complain about financial stability, can afford to live there.

But it’s the primary location where Karam unleashes the dialogue-heavy action and it’s uninvolving first two-thirds hints sometimes plays should stay in their respective medium. Other characters include Erik’s temperamental wife Deirdre (Houdyshell), their distant lesbian daughter Aimee (Schumer) and the dementia riddled Momo (Squibb). Together, they elevate a screenplay that simmers until a boiling point eventually reaches its apex. Secrets are revealed, insults are hurled, and Karam’s attempt at fostering an unorthodox, haunted house environment comes up empty handed. Schumer has one solid and genuinely hilarious moment dealing with the fallout of relationship though its catharsis gets swept under the rug; Yeun and Feldstein have zero chemistry; and by the time ulterior motives are unveiled, even veteran performers Jenkins and Hoydhsell can’t make a convincing case. Too little, too late.

“The Humans” benefits from the shared experience of the ensemble and their participation might suggest a passive watch, but it’s a sluggish haul. One that fails to encapsulate the viewer and sends them away underwhelmed.

Grade: C

THE HUMANS opens in theaters and streams on Showtime Wednesday, November 24th.


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