Writer-director Chris Kelly—who has written for Broad City and most notably was promoted to co-head writer for Saturday Night Live—has shown through his most famous skits the humor in returning home, nostalgia, and the awkwardness therein. “Back Home Ballers” and “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” showed how odd coming back to your childhood home and the people you left behind can be, while “First Got Horny 2 U” has a relatable specificity in a song about having a crush on the Menendez brothers or Robbie Sinclair from the ABC sitcom Dinosaurs. Kelly takes such precise memories and somehow makes them accessible in these musical skits. We haven’t all a childhood infatuation with killers or anthropomorphic dinosaurs, but the unusualness of our pasts makes these bits hilarious and empathetic.
In his first film Other People, Kelly tries to recapture this relatable specificity into a cohesive film, yet he falls to the typical criticism of most SNL writers & performers, creating a collection of skits instead of one strong story. Instead, Other People is a dramedy that never hits hard enough on either side of that compound, and despite excellent performances, the autobiographical material keeps the audience at arm’s length.
Other People’s Kelly surrogate is David (Jesse Plemons), a failing comedy writer who returns to Sacramento to take care of his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), who is dying from a rare form of cancer. David’s family includes two younger sisters, optimistic grandparents, and father Norman (Bradley Whitford), who refuses to acknowledge his son’s homosexuality.
When Other People focuses on the relationship between Joanne and David, who often are the only people either can relate to, Other People is at its most beautiful. Shannon’s performance is quiet—literally so—in a way that we rarely see her. As Joanna decides to quit chemotherapy, the film becomes a ticking clock to the inevitable, as we watch brief moments of Joanna enjoying her last days.
On the other hand, the usually nuanced Plemons is a mess of tics. Part of this could be seen as David’s awkwardness in returning to a town where he doesn’t belong, but it feels more emblematic of Other People’s portrayal of cliche-riddled gay characters. Much of the frustration that comes from David’s interactions with his father is that he’s just like everyone else, that his sexuality doesn’t define him. Except for some very tender moments between David and his ex—played by an excellent Zach Woods—every scene with gay characters other than David feels overblown and exaggerated.
David’s evolution through Other People is so gradual though, that for the majority of the film, we’re left seeing the events through the eyes of a sorrowful, judgmental, and self-centered character that is hard to sympathize with. Almost every character that David interact with is either looked down upon, seen as simple, or laughed off. When we see David in Sacramento—where people don’t get him—he alienates those who interact with him, but in the few scenes we see David in New York, he is open and accepting, even to those as self-interested as himself.
Other People’s strength comes in its incredible cast, which allows for typically comedic performers like the aforementioned Shannon and Woods to try something new and thrive. Whitford and John Early, who plays David’s only hometown friend Gabe, are both excellent in roles that have to overcome their banality and frequently do. But characters played by gifted comedians like Kerri Kenney and Matt Walsh are under-utilized, thrown in for a single joke before disappearing.
Most of Other People is tonally all over the place, not quite finding the right mixture of comedy and drama this story clearly wants to find, but does improve in the film’s third act. Unfortunately, Other People’s script and character up until that point have been muddled, ending the film with a fizzle rather than a true impact. Considering that Kelly has been able to be relatable, yet personal with his comedy work, it’s a shame this very personal story doesn’t engage the way he wanted.