Friday, September 9, 2016

Oscar Pandering Season Begins Well With Other People!

The Good: Well-written, Well-performed, Engaging characters
The Bad: Very simplistic plot, Tone transitions away from its initial humor
The Basics: Other People is a realistic exploration of an adult son's return to his estranged family to help his mother as she struggles with cancer.

Oscar Pandering Season is here! After Summer Blockbuster Season, most of the movie studios release their dumb horror flicks and their first serious contenders for the Academy Awards right around the same time. The first, obvious, outing for Oscar Pandering Season is Other People. Other People is an indie dramedy written and directed by Chris Kelly, which has a cast that is pretty much an Oscar voter's dream as it blends less-known performers (like Jesse Plemons), well-established actors with a history of winning awards (Bradley Whitford) and actors completely expanding their range in an unexpected way (in this case comedy actress Molly Shannon in a heavily dramatic role).

Other People is a very archetypal blend of drama and comedy, which has become popular over the last decade. Chris Kelly finds the right balance, though it is incredibly awkward at many times with its very abrupt transitions. One moment, there is a comedy show, the next David is telling uncomfortable friends about how his mother has given up on chemo, when the conversation is hijacked by someone from David's past. Other People is painful and funny without transitions and in that way it captures a realism that is profound and manages to be entertaining. At its core, Other People is a yearlong journey for David as he tries to take care of his dying mother.

Opening with a group of people crying over the death of Joanne, the film leaps back to New Year's, when David returns to Sacramento from New York, where the show he was writing for failed to get picked up. The party is for Joanne, David's mother, who has cancer. David, who is estranged from his boyfriend, quickly discovers that the people he knew in town find it very uncomfortable to interface with him about his mother's illness and the way his family dealt with him coming out almost a decade prior. As the year progresses, David, Joanne, and Norman (David's father) make arrangements for Joanne's death.

But in June, Joanne is tired of the chemo not working and she decides to quit it. In July, David and his comedy troupe put Joanne on stage for an improv routine. David hooks up with Paul there, despite not being together anymore. Returning to California, David tries to set up an online dating profile, but ends up spending time with his one friend in Sacramento (and his family) instead. David tries dating, but finds the experience more awkward and excruciating than spending time with his family.

Jesse Plemons is the lead in Other People and he earns the spotlight as David. Plemons might best be known for playing a psychopath nephew of the white supremacists in the final season of Breaking Bad (reviewed here!) and that role was very serious. Plemons is able to play deadpan comedy remarkably well in Other People, like a hilarious scene where David orders milkshakes from an absolute idiot. David is an incredibly straitlaced guy who does not react to the zany things people tell him - like his grandfather telling him about how his mom was supposed to be born dead and about a local girl who was decapitated and kept swimming around afterward. Plemons gives David some interesting ticks - when he gets nervous, he puts his fingers in his mouth and it's an interesting tell that Plemons uses very consistently without overdoing it in Other People.

Molly Shannon is wonderful in Other People. While she uses her trademark goofy facial expressions that made her famous during her tenure on Saturday Night Live for an amusing church scene, the role of Joanne is a much more dramatic part for her and she nails it. When talking about Joanne's last wishes, she expresses angst and anger tremendously well. As Joanne's condition deteriorates, Shannon spends a lot of time crying and making an agonizing physical performance to embody her physical changes. Shannon's scowl when Joanne visits the school she will no longer be teaching at is harder to watch than her portrayal of Joanne losing her voice in the same scene.

Bradley Whitford plays predictably well as the homophobic Norman, a clear departure from his role from Transparent (Season 1 is reviewed here!). Whitford is amazing in a very simple scene where he has his children out talking to his kids about what is going on in their lives. After watching Whitford work on different projects for years, it is interesting to see him add new performance depths, though it is unsurprising that he nails them! Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty are underused on Other People as David's oft-neglected younger sisters Alexandra and Rebeccah. In his brief scenes opposite Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods creates a palpable chemistry with him as Paul.

Other People is well-directed, but it is also one of the few films I have watched lately where the product placement was painfully obvious. A bag of chips is very noticeably placed with its name visible in an early scene, a conversation among schoolteachers suddenly prominently plugs Target and the establishing shot of Applebee's seems overly long. And when David has his big breakdown in a store where he cannot organically find what he is looking for, it is noticeably not a Target.

As well, Other People features an incredibly awkward scene that seems to only even be tolerable because Little Miss Sunshine (reviewed here!) did it, literally, a decade ago. It sticks out in the film in a particularly unpleasant way . . . which is saying something for a movie that has agonizing scenes portraying a woman painfully dying of cancer.

Other People is a technically wonderful film that has good characters, a consistent theme and is impressively performed, but its closeness to reality makes it hard to watch as entertainment. It is an excruciating journey to death and that makes it inherently awkward and difficult. It is Oscarbait that is well-made, worth watching once, but hard to get excited about seeing more than that.

For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Whole Truth
Pete's Dragon
Suicide Squad
Star Trek Beyond


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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