I’ll fully admit, I’ve never heard of the 2009 online series “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” but apparently it featured Jewish men and women over the age of 60 telling their favorite jokes. The creator of that show was Sam Hoffman, who produced such films as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Limited, and is currently a producer on “Madam Secretary.”
Apparently the joke show was popular enough that Hoffman used it as a jumping off point for his first feature as a writer-director, Humor Me, about Nate, a once-celebrated New York playwright (Jemaine Clement) whose wife leaves him on the same day funding is pulled from his latest play because he doesn’t have the confidence to finish it. As a result, he is forced to move in with his retired father, Bob (Elliott Gould), who lives in a swanky New Jersey retirement community and loves to tell jokes (usually dirty ones) to anyone who crosses his path.
Any attempt to have a serious conversation about topics ranging from Nate’s late mother to Bob’s failing health are met with nothing but punchlines, making it nearly impossible for the father and son to actually communicate. Nate struggles creatively while also trying to deal with his wife running off with a billionaire and taking their young son with her; his efforts to meet the pace of Bob’s lifestyle are proving difficult as well. But things begin to turn around for Nate when he agrees to help out with the gated community’s abbreviated production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, featuring musical accompaniment by Allison (musician and singer Ingrid Michaelson), the daughter of one of the performers (Annie Potts), whom Nate begins to fall for.
There are times when Humor Me feels like it’s on the verge of heading in the wrong, knuckle-headed direction, but what emerges includes a heartbreaking father-son story about loss and failed ambition (we find out late in the film that the play that put Nate on the map was a thinly veiled telling of his father’s inability to deal with his mother’s slow death by cancer). The love story is also much more tentative and sweet than your average rom-com (which this is not), and the casting of Michaelson adds an unexpected vibrancy and quirkiness that is welcome.
It’s nearly impossible for me to fault Clement in anything he’s ever been in. He can take the worst film and give it its only tolerable moments. Humor Me is a decent work to begin with, so aside from slipping in and out of his Kiwi accent, he’s pretty great here, in both a funny and moving role.
Making us laugh about old people being old is a slippery slope, but filmmaker Hoffman actually populates his supporting cast with actors who refuse to simply play doddering coots. He gives many of them full lives of their own and a clear sense that they have no interest in sitting around waiting to die. Naturally, things wrap up a little too perfectly with both the seniors’ stage show and the movie, but it’s certainly not to an unforgivable defgree.
Moments involving actually seeing Bob’s jokes (all about a guy named Zimmerman, played in black-and-white cutaways by Joey Slotnick) acted out, as well as scenes with Nate checking in on his ex- while she jet sets arounds the globe with the new boyfriends, seem extraneous, but Humor Me is a largely serviceable, often quite amusing, piece that refuses to pander or ridicule outright. And if your parents or grandparents don’t mind a blue joke here and there, they’ll probably adore it.
The film opens today in Chicago at AMC River East 21.