Other People is the kind of comedy that would fit into television in today’s landscape. Our diet for funny must include huge doses of tragedy. It’s a hilarious story dealing with a woman who is dying of cancer. Screenwriter Chris Kelly, newly-minted head writer of Saturday Night Live, took his experiences of watching his mother die in 2009, and took pen to paper and wrote this affecting and hilarious dramedy about a comedian who is suffering through his mother’s long and painful death.
Kelly’s onscreen persona, David (Jesse Plemons), is a comedy writer based in New York City. His career is struggling as is his personal life. David moves back to Sacramento for a spell to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). After torturous rounds of chemo, Joanne decides to stop, letting nature take its course. The household is fraught with tragedy, tension, and comedy. David’s dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is a loving husband and father to daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madison Beaty), but is distant with his son because he’s still hung up on David’s homosexuality.
While dealing with his mom’s illness, David is also nursing the demise of his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods). Throughout the movie, David is trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. He hangs out with bestie Gabe (John Early) whose tween brother Justin (J.J. Totah) is a fabulous drag queen. He’s also trying to make shape of his career – his Comedy Central pilot failed and he’s pinning his hopes on an ABC deal.
Films like Other People can crash and burn if not handled well. Chris Kelly wisely stays clear of the bathetic lachrymose that sunk films like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment. Despite his personal stake in the story, he’s very unsentimental and unsparing when showing his viewers Joanne’s decline. As a director, he’s still a bit green. He hasn’t figured out a consistent way to blend the comedy and the tragedy – both highly pitched – in a way that feels organic. At times, he manages, but often the tonal shifts feel abrupt.
Casting a film like this is hard stuff because it’s a challenge to get funny actors who can match the demands of the script. It feels like the film’s populated by wall-to-wall comics. Even in smaller roles like family friends or coworkers, we folks like Paula Pell, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Retta, Lennon Parham, Paul Dooley, Nicole Byer, Rose Abdoo, as well as, the aforementioned Early and Woods. And lead Molly Shannon – an SNL vet – proves to be yet another, in a long list of comedians who prove to be sterling dramatic performers, too. Her trademark goofy mugging – all arms and hands splayed – is effective when Joanne is healthier and stronger, but she adapts beautifully to the more concise and contained restraints that Joanne’s decline brings – her expressive face can convey a multitude of emotions without needing a single word uttered. Plemons and Whitford match her note-for-note, but gallantly allow for Other People to remain Shannon’s show.
Kelly’s script gives up the story’s ending in the first scene. It’s a wise choice because expectations are matched, and therefore the audience isn’t waiting for a twist or a surprise ending, nor are they expecting some neat or pat resolution. Instead we’re left to focus on the relationships, namely that of David and Joanne. It’s hinted in one touching scene that his coming out wasn’t smooth, and it’s clear that Norman still cannot seem to accept having a gay son (in one sad scene, he’d rather wait outside on a dark New York street than go inside David’s apartment which he shares with Paul). Though, this isn’t a gay coming-of-age story. Instead, it’s a touching, tiny, indie dramedy that left viewers gasping for breath from laughing and crying.