A Review of Chris Kelly’s Other People: Well-Balanced Comedic Drama

other-people
Film: Other People
Director: Chris Kelly
Writer: Chris Kelly
Primary Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, June Squibb, Paul Dooley, J.J. Totah, John Early
US Release Date: 9 September 2016

Other People opens with tragedy. In its first scene, David (Plemons), his father (Whitford), and his two sisters (Apatow and Beaty) are all gathered around their mother, Joanne (Shannon). She’s just died of cancer in the family home. They sob on the bed next to her corpse. Heavy stuff.

The film then takes viewers back in time about a year or so, to a family holiday party that takes place just after Joanne gets sick. Her son David is a comedy writer who lives in New York, but he moves back to Sacramento to be with her after she’s diagnosed. He hates Sacramento, in part, because it reminds him of his adolescence—of a time when his sexuality was closeted and when he lacked anything that might resemble self-confidence.

Though he doesn’t tell his family, David has just broken up with his long-time boyfriend (Woods). In light of his mother’s illness, something like a breakup seems incredibly small, but it affects David all the same (as these things always do). Over the course of the film, David also struggles with repeated career-related rejections (such is the life of a writer). All the while, each passing month is a reminder to viewers that Joanne’s death is coming, whether they like it or not.

Did I mention that the film is a comedy?

Written and directed by comedy writer Chris Kelly (SNL, Broad City), Other People is an emotional rollercoaster. More importantly, it’s genuinely funny. The film represents a promising if imperfect debut for Kelly, who clearly has both an ear for dialogue and an impressive ability to balance humor and drama. A solid, nuanced performance from Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo Season 2) anchors Other People, and Kelly himself has enough good sense to never let things get out of hand. Despite its missteps, Other People remains one of the most touching, sincere, and funny comedies to debut in recent months.

The writing and directing of Other People was a deeply personal project for Kelly, and it shows. The semi-autobiographical film deals with cancer, death, homosexuality, romance, and family drama. More importantly, the film also manages to handle such emotionally charged and potentially cliché subjects without becoming overly melodramatic and without forfeiting all claims to freshness. Other People knows that the various and intersecting challenges that David faces are not unique, and such awareness helps to keep the film grounded.

In presenting a fictionalized version of what was surely a very chaotic, tragic, and difficult time in his own life, Kelly doesn’t lose perspective or allow any desire for sheer spectacle to get the better of him. Throughout the film, the writer/director balances the impulse to make his character’s struggles feel important with a drive to keep the film from becoming so emotionally unwieldly that it loses its viewers. For the most part, Kelly manages to present even the most devastating moments in his script with enough restraint that Other People remains engaging to the very end.

Still, while Kelly’s film does exhibit enough nuance and emotional intelligence to keep its more dramatic elements from overtaking its comedy, some moments do work better than others. There are several lines in the film that don’t land as well as Kelly intends. Most of these occur at in the film’s more somber moments; and while they do throw the overall tone of the work off-kilter a bit; they don’t occur frequently enough to do much damage.

Other People relies on its characters and key performances quite heavily, and more often than not, they manage to support Kelly’s vision. This is especially true for Plemons, who brings David to life as a complex person—and not some mere flattened or oversimplified version of the director’s ego. As in other roles, Plemons demonstrates remarkable versatility in this film, and his understanding of emotional subtlety can be quite compelling. Plemons has been on the rise for a few years now, and it’s nice to see him at the center of a film. What the actor lacks in sharp angles, he more than makes up for with his ability to delve into a character’s darkness without wholly forsaking likability or authenticity along the way.

In addition to comedy and conversation that generally feel natural, the film also succeeds benefits from its pacing and narrative structure. Though it covers a lot of ground—temporally, personally, tonally, and emotionally—Other People moves fairly quickly. The film is also told as a series of vignettes, the focused, concentrated structure of which allows Kelly to make an impression even with those characters who have very little screen time.

Other People is a comedy about sad, well-off white people that doesn’t completely suck. Above all, the film is fun to watch, and it contains enough solid jokes to makes viewers laugh regularly. At the same time, Kelly also gives enough depth to his main characters and enough force to his drama to produce a multi-faceted, memorable, and affective viewing experience. Hopefully, any future films from Kelly will be a little more daring and polished; that said, as long as they are as funny and as touching as Other People, they’ll be just fine.   

Oh, and for the record, I hate Train. (Watch the film. You’ll understand.)

Until Next Time
I really need to get out of the habit of waiting so long after seeing a film to actually put together a coherent review. . . Of course, we all have our shortcomings.

As always, thank you so much for reading! I’ve been missing a lot of new releases lately (because grad school), so feel free to make recommendations to me! (I probably won’t get to them while they are in theaters, but I can at least add them to my watchlist for later).

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