‘Other People’ Review: A Clichéd Cancer Dramedy Starring Jesse Plemons
In Other People, the opening night film at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Jesse Plemons (Fargo, Breaking Bad) plays a struggling gay comedy writer who travels home to care for his terminally ill mother. If that synopsis doesn’t shout “Sundance movie,” nothing does.
The opening scene to writer/director Chris Kelly’s autobiographical feature debut wastes no time in establishing just how stereotypically “indie” this indie film is. Plemons’ David lies on a bed with his two younger sisters and father (Bradley Whitford) and their dying mother beside them, played by Molly Shannon. Though I refuse to consider anything in the first five minutes of a film a spoiler, consider this your warning – yes, Shannon’s Joanne dies. The family grabs hands and cries in what builds to a moving moment until cutoff quickly by an incoming call echoing through the house. A friend who has just learned of Joanne’s cancer leaves a heedless voicemail, wishing the now-dead Joanne good health while arguing with a Taco Bell employee in a drive-thru. This is the type of hollow humor that underlines much of Other People, a would-be dramedy that’s too removed and too safe to leave a lasting impression.
Other People then flashes back to the previous year, where David’s life swiftly approaches rock bottom. He’s just broken up with his boyfriend (Zach Woods) of five years, his spec script for a Comedy Central pilot didn’t get picked up – but “You never know!” his boisterous grandmother, played by June Squibb, insists – his father refuses to acknowledge his sexuality, and his mom is beginning chemotherapy. On top of that, David struggles with returning to the mundanity of his Sacramento hometown where he still feels like an outcast.
His only friend there is Gabe, another gay guy (John Early) who’s mother also died of cancer years before. But as much as Other People wants its gay characters to seem “just like everyone else,” it’s over-attention to their queerness turns them into clichés. The biggest stereotype of all comes in Gabe’s little brother Justin, played by J.J. Totah of Glee. Justin is the queeniest of queeny kids, whose overblown flamboyance and drag performance evoke more of an eye-roll than a “Yas queen!” response. We all love show-stopping gay boys who go viral for twerking and flaunting their dance moves in public, but Other People‘s attempt to recreate that is obnoxiously excessive in a way that feels like pandering to generic assumptions of queerness.
Though Other People opens on a family and seems to depict their combined and individual tussles with acceptance – of difference, of loss, and of failure – it’s much more about its lead character wallowing in self-pity. David expresses so much contempt for those around him; Sacramento folk, his family, every guy on OKCupid, and a hometown acquaintance with writing aspirations, but much of his sorrow lacks real passion. And with his character missing such depth, the film leaves Plemons with little to offer in an overall unmemorable performance.
If anyone’s the star of Other People, it’s Shannon. She giving a touching performance, with equal amounts of strength and weakness. It’s refreshing to see Shannon set aside her typical wacky humor to depict an average middle-aged mother facing her own demise. Yet as much as she plays her heartbreaking scenes of sickness and frailty with compassion, she also shines in her comedic ones, and owns all the film’s laugh-out-loud moments. In one, a stoned Joanne cooks with the entire stick of pot butter, and then spanks herself on the couch after returning home from the E.R. – a quintessential Shannon sequence.
With seasoned comedy writer Kelly, plus Adam and Naomi Scott on board producing, Other People seemingly had the potential to become more than a trite cancer dramedy. As a Saturday Night Live writer, Kelly has co-written some of the most viral sketches in recent year, including “Back Home Ballers,” “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” and “First Got Horny 2 U.” Kelly has also written for Broad City, and is responsible for introducing the world to Abbi Jacobson’s Val in the “Hashtag FOMO” episode. Based on his SNL musical shorts, it’s clear he understands the awkward comedy that can arise when an adult returns to their childhood home. Making that transition into Other People sounds seamless, but somehow Kelly loses his sharp sense of millennial humor in his first film.
On the surface, anyone who’s moved away from home to pursue a dream career, feels like an outsider in their family, or had a close relatives suffer from cancer can relate to Other People. But once you peel off the superficial layers there's little beneath to praise. Kelly’s generic characters, stale humor, and dated storyline about the macho father rejecting his gay son have all been done before, and no longer feel relevant. In one scene at a local gay bar, Gabe says, in response to David’s homophobic father, “What is this, 2008?” One could only assume Gabe was talking about Other People.