‘Other People’ (2016) | Sundance Review

Another year, another Sundance cancer dramedy. Remember back in 2011, people were wondering whether or not 50/50 could joke about cancer. Now, cancer dramedies are their own sub-genre. Last year, the big one to come out of Sundance, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards, was the overly precious Me and Early and the Dying Girl. This year it is Other People, a movie honest in its emotions. However, the tonal shifts between broad comedy and true tragedy are so diametrically opposed they do not connect with one another, and the substance of the movie is nothing more than a Sundance wet dream checklist.

Jesse Plemons plays David, an edging on 30 writer from Sacramento who sold a pilot to Comedy Central (that didn’t get picked up). His mother (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer. He is also gay, and his dad (Bradley Whitford) does not accept that. See what I mean when I say this sounds like a Sundance movie checklist? A gay writer with a parent dying of cancer. It almost sounds like it could be a parody movie at this point.

The big question I’m sure many people have is does Molly Shannon have the chops to do this? The answer is yes. She cries and vomits with the best of them. But all she really gets to play is her illness. We get glimpses of a person with an inner life and personality, but this is about the tragedy of her situation. Seeing the deterioration of a person only invites pity, not empathy. She is only a force to affect Plemons’ David and not an actual person.

The movie would have been more affective had it kept that somber tone. Unfortunately, writer/director Chris Kelly makes us sit through truly bizarre bits of broad comedy, most notably in the form of David’s friend’s little brother (J.J. Totah). This character is baffling to me. He is about eleven years old who behaves like a 45 year-old flaming queen. I would use a better term, but quite frankly, that’s how the film sees him, as he wants marble walls for his birthday but knows that’s outside his dad’s price range and feels the need to put on gold shorts and twerk in David’s face. Oh by the way, that is his birthday present for his dad. I had no clue if we were supposed to be laughing at or with this character, and I just felt uncomfortable all around.

Though the narrative components are so overfamiliar, the point of view does feel authentic. This seems like it could be ripped straight from Chris Kelly’s life, as he is a TV writer. The core of it is there. Jelly just needed lots of help in presenting it. Other People does not know which of its three core stories it wants to be about. Pick cancer, sexuality, or struggling writer to be your center. You can’t do all three, even if you think you have stuff to say on all three fronts. Jelly ends up spreading himself thin.

The movie is very earnest, but it pulls you in so many familiar directions it ends up being a bit of a headache. The comedy doesn’t land because the tragedy surrounding it is so serious, and the tragedy doesn’t gut punch you the way it should because it’s surrounded by awkward, broad comedy. A good film can be found in here somewhere, but this is not the good one.

GRADE: D

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