Other People opens with a scene that I won’t soon forget. A family, at the worst moment in their lives gathers around the bed of the family matriarch who has just passed on after a long and lingering battle with cancer. In the midst of their sorrow the dearly departed gets a message on the answering machine from a well-wisher who not only wishes her a speedy recovery but is in the middle of ordering breakfast at McDonald’s. This is that kind of movie.
There’s a special kind of writer who can mix serious melodrama with comedy like that and here it is an extremely talented first-time writer-director named Chris Kelly. Watching the film it should surprise no one that he cut his teeth writing for Saturday Night Live. Yet, what comes from this film is a surprisingly human story that could only have come from experience.
Other People opens with that bittersweet scene but then reverses back a year to tell the story of how the Mulcahy family came to be in that situation. This is a movie about people at the worst moment in their lives and how they resolve their affairs before the inevitable falls on them. The central focus is on David (Jesse Plemons) a struggling comedy writer who has just come back home to Sacramento to care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) who is dying of cancer.
This is the worst year of David’s life, not only is he about to lose his mother, but his career is going nowhere and he’s still reeling from the breakup with his boyfriend of five years. Added to that is the fact that he has to face his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) who has never been able to deal with his son’s sexual orientation in any realistic way. Returning to his hometown is to return to a gallery of misunderstanding relatives and the reality that his problems still await him when he gets back to New York. Meanwhile, he takes the reins in trying to deal with a mother whose condition is getting progressively worse.
This sounds like unbearably depressing material and, in some respects it is. But Other People is not about gloom and doom. It’s about the funnier side of life that intrudes when the dark clouds threaten to consume what should be a much happier existence. David is dealing with the inevitability of losing his mother. Yet, it’s not a one-perspective scenario. It also deals with what a family who must do in order to make peace with themselves before they lose one of their own. When someone is dying of an aggressive cancer, what is the agenda? What do you say? How do you act? How does one settle their affairs?
The answers to those questions are put to Joanne, played in a beautiful performance by Molly Shannon who not only plays out the physical torment of someone dying of cancer but also the trials of someone that everyone sees as a victim. Persistently she is pelted with advice and messages of good feeling that are, more or less, irrelevant. This is happening, she knows it, but she’s not partial to greeting card advice. Her face is often a mask of dealing with the inevitable but also quiet pleas that seem to say “get me away from these thoughtless morons.”
The comedy of that opening scene is kind of the tapestry for the rest of the film. The comedy and the drama are kept in their distinctive places so they don’t step on each other. Often the comic moments arrive just at the moment when the drama becomes too much to bear. This is a story about the comedy and tragedy of life and how they are intertwined. But it is also a very human story.
The performances of not here are the aforementioned Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons who has made a name for himself in supporting roles. He has a look that could seed his career with mean tough guy roles, but here he plays a man with a broken heart and a life that is pulling him in all directions. He has a moment of breakdown in a grocery store that is so well played that you want to applaud it for not going over the top.
Above all this is a bitter sweet comedy, a good one. It’s the story of dealing with grief and the inevitability of aggressive cancer and the agenda that is due, both mentally and physically, that must be dealt with before it claims its intended. Yet, around that are the humorous and ironic bits of comedy that keep such a situation from being an overbearing slog. Comedy is the great boomerang of our lives and Chris Kelly captures that in a sad and funny way that is painfully sad and achingly funny at the same time.