Review: ‘The Humans’ with Amy Schumer beautifully translates to screen

As we reflect on memories of Thanksgiving gatherings, this beautifully-rendered film adaptation of a Tony Award-winning play reminds us why families need honest conversation. “The Humans” is a meticulous and meaningful movie that strengthens the impact of the stage original by rethinking its storytelling for the screen. The result is a most satisfying translation of a theatrical experience.

More Information

Film Summary: The Humans

Content: High. Family members long to be heard as they share a Thanksgiving meal filled with all the emotional trimmings.
Entertainment: High. As serious as the relationships in the film, playwright, adapter and director Stephen Karam hits all the right notes in a stunning recreation of his stage hit.
Message: High. No matter the film takes place in one day in one place, it reaches all the destinations this family may need to visit.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine what it takes to discover and reveal truth makes a visit to the movies worthwhile.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk about what truth can mean to our efforts to absorb change in our lives.

“The Humans” works on screen because playwright, adapter and director Stephen Karam doesn’t try to recreate what worked in live performance. Here is a film adaptation that never feels bound by its stage origins and does not feel compelled to artificially move the action outside the primary setting for conversation. Instead Karam beautifully creates a sense of people trapped inside an emotional ghetto where feelings must be expressed. And we get to spend 108 minutes with a fascinating family struggling to find the words to express how they care.

In the first moments Karam efficiently introduces the setting – a rambling and relatively empty duplex in Manhattan – by shooting the initial sequences from a distance to help us get to know the space as the characters begin to gather. This visual choice makes us feel that we are eavesdropping on the initial moments of a Thanksgiving dinner served with all the baggage that each person brings. Parents struggle with taking care of an elderly family member while juggling their personal and professional disappointments. Daughters embrace the realities of relationships while dealing with emotional, physical and financial challenges as a new member of the family deals with fears of rejection and the matriarch copes with the realities of aging. In their own ways, some humorous, some tragic, each desperately looks to this Thanksgiving dinner as a chance to connect and heal.

This all beautifully works because Karam trusts his actors and his material. The seasoned cast underplays every emotional moment to draw us into the power of the piece rather than overwhelm us with fabricated intensity. Jayne Houdyshell, who won a Tony for her Broadway performance, perfectly recreates her portrayal of a mother trying to articulate the family’s soul and scars while comedienne Amy Schumer impresses with her nuanced portrayal of a daughter in turmoil. Beanie Feldstein shines as the other daughter, a cheerful if resigned soul, while Steven Yeun comfortably slowly reveals his own anxieties while trying to simply serve dinner. And Richard Jenkins grabs our hearts with his pitch perfect rendition of a father so desperate for relief that he can’t express his grief.

All of this naturally unfolds as the day progresses from appetizer to main to dessert, never letting us feel we are watching a play on screen. Instead we feel so comfortable with these people as if we had been invited to share their menu of emotional needs. Congratulations to Karam for daring to reimagine the power of his story for a new medium. “The Humans” offers a textbook example of how to adapt a play for the screen.

“The Humans” runs 1 hour and 48 minutes, is rated R for some sexual material and language, and is showing in theaters as well as streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu, and showing on Showtime.