“Old Jews Telling Jokes” creator Sam Hoffman’s feature debut offers gags aplenty, though the drama never quite connects.
Director Sam Hoffman is best known for his web series, “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which he has already adapted into a book and an Off Broadway play. And in his feature film debut, “Humor Me,” the best moments involve exactly that. As told by Elliott Gould, “Humor Me” is chockablock with absurd, slightly blue, long-set-up gags involving a hapless protagonist named Zimmerman, portrayed throughout by Joey Slotnick in goofy black-and-white vignettes. The only trouble? Gould and his musty jokes are ultimately the side show here, with Hoffman’s film focusing on an equally musty plot involving a down-on-his-luck playwright (Jemaine Clement), who gets a second lease on life when he goes to live with his father at a New Jersey retirement community. Plenty endearing, and packed to the gills with wonderful AARP-aged actors who are clearly in tune with Hoffman’s old-school, Borscht Belt sensibilities, “Humor Me” manages to earn its audience’s indulgence, if never its full affection.
When we first meet Nate (Clement), he’s in the process of being fired by his dog-hoarding theater agent (Bebe Neuwirth), frustrated by his inability to finish his latest play. He arrives home to an even ruder awakening, as his wine-swilling art-dealer wife (Maria Dizzia) announces she’s leaving with their young son for a Riviera vacation with her billionaire new beau. Out of money, homeless, and shooed away by his Ken-doll real estate kingpin brother (Erich Bergen), Nate opts for his last resort: The spare bedroom of his father Bob (Gould), deep in the Cranberry Bog retirement community.
Nate has plenty of reasons to be depressed – and his thorny conversations with his constantly yukking dad hint at lingering resentment over how he dealt with the death of Nate’s mother – but his nonstop moping as he drifts around the community makes him an only sporadically engaging protagonist. To compensate, Hoffman offers up half a dozen brightly colorful characters, from a drill-sergeant groundsman (Willie C. Carpenter) to a group of bickering senior actresses (Annie Potts, Le Clanche du Rand, Rosemary Prinz) keen to put on a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Nate tries taking a job with the former, is summarily fired, and finally winds up as the volunteer director of the latter, gradually rediscovering his mojo, and striking up a relationship with one of the actresses’ daughter (Ingrid Michaelson), a thirtysomething piano player who’s found herself similarly adrift.
While Bob’s jokes sometimes do veer off toward unexpected punchlines, Nate’s arc follows an entirely predictable trajectory, which leaves a lot of slack when the narrative takes a darker turn in the later-going. None of this is Clement’s fault: Though his American accent slips at times, he puts in a committed shift as this narcissistic, if ultimately justifiably aggrieved man. In fact, at times his performance is almost too successful, and his fully-fleshed, three-dimensional protagonist rarely seems to inhabit the same planet as the cartoon characters buzzing around him. Fortunately, the shtick Hoffman offers to the rest of the cast is so broadly good-natured – with the retirement home setting allowing the director to get away some harmlessly politically incorrect gags – that the film is never a chore.