Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me reminds us that, as long as cinema exists, there will be films about writers flaming out and returning home to reexamine their roots and meet romantic partners who affirm their fragile talent. For American writers, this irresistible fantasy represents a vision of success via failure. This scenario is plagued by self-absorption, of course, as every supporting character in these films exists to massage the writer’s battered ego, and such a schematic nulls the potential for dramatic surprise: From Humor Me’s first scene, it’s evident that struggling playwright Nate Kroll (Jemaine Clement) will land on his feet, discovering a cozy community, un-plagued by the concerns of the outside world, which will offer him a feeling of usefulness.
Like most films of its ilk, Humor Me is unaware of a resonant irony. These films preach of writers needing to branch out from their bubbles, while plopping them in a new bubble that enables their talents and protects them from chaos. This plot element isn’t incidental, as writers yearn for the stability that enables them to write. They’re stuck in their heads and want someone close by—a spouse, lover, or parent—to tend to the tedium of everyday life while they wrestle with their thoughts. Nate once wrote a successful play about his mother’s death, and he’s been struggling with a follow-up for years, forcing his wife, Nirit (Maria Dizzia), to assume total responsibility for their young son, Gabe (Cade Lappin). Understandably resenting this arrangement, Nirit leaves Nate for a French billionaire, forcing Nate to move into a retirement community in New Jersey with his father, Bob (Elliott Gould).
Nate and Bob will inevitably surmount their relational baggage, while Nate encounters a variety of oddballs who’ll help him work through his uncertainty and self-absorption. Nate trades one cocoon (Nirit’s chic New York loft) for another (Bob’s reassuringly bland townhome). Throughout Humor Me, we never see Nate worrying about money or Gabe’s literal and cultural distance from his father. The financial perils of aging are elided, as Bob is comfortably retired. And writers’ existential fears of wasting their lives on potentially nonexistent talents are barely broached, as Hoffman is most interested in the textures of Nate’s new bubble, offering audiences a surrogate vacation realm.
Hoffman shrewdly soft-peddles many clichés. Nate’s potential love interest, Allison (Ingrid Michaelson), isn’t presented as the solution to his problems, but as a gorgeous and intelligent woman near Nate’s age who also happens to be living in a retirement community with her own parent, Dee (Annie Potts). Nate and Allison share an energy that’s poignant and evocative of the ways in which damaged people relate, most notably how they confess to their most intimate embarrassments with tarnished yet unmistakable pride.
The film’s supporting characters have a prickly agency that threatens to expand the boundaries of Hoffman’s formula. Bob’s girlfriend, Connie (Priscilla Lopez), takes Nate under her wing and lands him a gig directing a musical number from The Mikado for the retirement community. Connie isn’t a stereotypical biddy, but a zesty and empathetic cancer survivor who recognizes that life’s too short for Nate’s indulgent handwringing. Lopez invests Humor Me with a wonderful casualness of being, hinting at pain as well as transcendence, especially when she shares a joint with Nate on Bob’s porch. Pain and gracefulness also run through the film’s best scene, in which one of the actresses from the makeshift Mikado, Helen (Le Clanché du Rand), sexually propositions Nate, who’s 40 years her junior. This moment isn’t played as a crass joke: Helen is certainly capable of broadening Nate’s erotic horizons, and her directness embodies the elegance of getting older, dispensing with insecure nonsense, and saying what you mean.
What if Nate had gone to bed with Helen? Such unexplored possibilities haunt Humor Me. Hoffman respects his characters and evinces curiosity about their lives—and these qualities aren’t to be taken for granted. But he isn’t willing to disrupt his familiar and tightly structured plot. Like Nate and other writers both real and fictional, he’s afraid to tread too far out of his comfort zone.