Other People: Death by Comedy, by David Bax
Chris Kelly’s Other People establishes its tone with a killer one-two punch of an opening scene. The film begins with a bleak kick to the gut, a family sobbing over the disease-wracked corpse of their matriarch. What happens next, though, is both banal and absurd, with a huge laugh sending us into the opening titles.
Jesse Plemons stars as David, a semi-successful New York comedy writer who moves back home to Sacramento to help take care of his terminally ill mother (Molly Shannon), while also wrestling with career troubles, the recent end of a five-year relationship with his boyfriend (Zach Woods) and the fact that his father (Bradley Whitford) refuses to accept that his son is gay.
Kelly has worked with Funny or Die, The Onion, Saturday Night Live and Broad City. That pedigree is on full display here and, while Other People contains harsh and sobering hallmarks of the disease and death subgenre, it is essentially a comedy. Kelly toys with his movie’s twin identities, often ending a depressing scene with a smash cut to something comedic or vice versa.
Kelly’s work experience adds to the the specificity of David’s life. David’s New York world, which we visit with the rest of the family on a brief trip, is full of authentic touches, like a scene taking place at the UCB Theatre. It pains me to report, though, that improv comedy still embarrassing to watch even when it’s in a scripted movie.
Despite having plenty of laughs, Other People remains, in the end, a movie about someone losing their mother to cancer. Even at only 97 minutes, Kelly adeptly marks the excruciating passage of time and the slow but irreversible worsening of David’s mother’s health (he returns to the same angle of a park through which David and his mom walk to help chart the course of the months). It’s painful to watch but you’ll never laugh so hard at cancer.