Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, “Humor Me,” could be marketed thusly: Come for Elliott Gould, stay for Jemaine Clement.
The New Zealand actor displays a nimble gift for wit and pathos in this smart, grown-up comedy about mid-career stumbles, aging parents, and intergenerational acceptance. An under-the-radar treat, “Humor Me” screens in the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 11 at 1 p.m., in the wake of a brief theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in early 2018.
Hoffman, best known for producing the TV show “Madame Secretary,” counterintuitively chooses a New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), as well as the adult son-elderly father dynamic and (improbably) the theater, he has crafted a warm-hearted, perfectly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Gould), is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If this bit of wisdom seems to be encased in wry Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. Indeed, all of Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”)
At the same time, the post-Catskills generation can readily empathize with Nate’s push-pull relationship with his father, as well as with his career success and disappointment. In a day and age when later-in-life second chances invariably are several steps down from the opportunities available fresh out of the gate, Nate’s derailment elicits recognition and empathy.
Clement plays Nate as a good-natured schlemiel and natural-born mensch at a low ebb of self-confidence. He possesses the perfect amount of self-aware angst, which makes him available as well as attractive to a potential (and inevitable) love interest.
It takes a semi-plausible contrivance on Hoffman’s part to arrange for the presence of another non-septuagenarian at Cranberry Bog, but the chemistry between Nate and Allison (a punkish Ingrid Michaelson) is so appealing that we quickly forgive and forget the machinations it took to get them under the same community clubhouse roof.
Another quality that fuels the viewer’s goodwill is that there’s not a single stupid character in “Humor Me,” including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen). This generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s mostly gray-haired foils, not at them.
It helps immeasurably that Hoffman assembled a veteran cast (Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior, Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight) who nail every last punch line and reaction shot.
“Humor Me” plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.