Jocelyn Novek | Associated Press
Laughter and tears. Fun and frustration. Attachment and insults. Anxiety, hostility, too much food, too much alcohol.
In other words: Thanksgiving.
This year’s Thanksgiving news covers COVID and how families will cope with intergenerational relationships. There’s nothing quite like it in Stephen Karam’s People, which is an all-one Thanksgiving meal based on a play written nearly a decade ago. But another plague looms over the Blake family, to whose table we join for 108 minutes: economic pain. Poor middle class. The American dream in tatters.
Karam is adapting here his own Tony-winning work, a play inspired by the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In doing so, he achieves something rather rare: he makes the intimate and destructive family drama even more intimate and destructive.
Somehow, the feeling of impending doom, the feeling that dinner is approaching a dark denouement, is even more palpable on the screen. So is claustrophobia. If in the stage version it was inconvenient to be limited to one apartment, the effect is even sharper here, as the camera gets closer and closer, honing not only faces, but also hidden corners, even spots on the ceiling and walls, as if to say: there is no way out.
If this sounds like a horror movie, it might be because Karam said he was a huge fan of the genre. So, although the plot supposedly has nothing to do with horror, elements are present: mysterious sounds, nervous moments, terrible dreams.
Location: A dilapidated Chinatown apartment where Brigid (Bini Feldstein) and boyfriend Richard (Steven Yoon) invited her parents, Erica (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jane Houdishell), grandmother Momo (June Squibb), and sister Amy (Amy Schumer) for Thanksgiving. Paint is peeling, pipes are exposed, plaster is swelling, toilet seat is broken. In addition, there is almost no furniture. But there is a spiral staircase, and although there are no windows on the lower floor, this place is a theft.
Not that Bridget’s Catholic parents of Scranton, Pennsylvania were middle-class, they would admit it. Eric worries that Brigid lives near ground zero – we learn of his own 9/11 trauma – and in the floodplain, and as for Deirdre, she can’t help but comment on the lack of visibility. Vivid protests: “Mom, this is the courtyard!” To which Mom jokes with feigned arrogance: “Perhaps we can all take a walk in the courtyard after dinner.”
There is certainly symbolism in this courtyard – not only because it is the main element of urban dwellings, but also because it is closed from the outside world, like Blakey, for the hours we spend with them.
A cast of six can be difficult if there is a weak link. Fortunately, no. Moreover, the banter among family members seems more than genuine – it seems that these people really knew each other all the time. In a pleasant surprise, Schumer’s understated, touching play as Amy, who suffers from ulcerative colitis so severe that she lost the chance to partner with her law firm. Her girlfriend also left her, as we learn from the heartbreaking phone call she makes during her dinner break.
Brigid (the extremely attractive Feldstein) are more fortunate in love; Richard is a loyal, dedicated guy who even prepares holiday meals. But like her sister, Brigid is struggling economically – she lost several grants to start her music career, and she has huge student debts. Bridget is sociable and pleasant, but when pushed, she can hurt, especially due to her mother’s weight.
As for mom, the stunning Houdyshell even deepened her performance beyond the stage version – the only holdover from the show – for which she rightfully won the Tony Award. Her Deirdre is outwardly optimistic and cheerful, but can instantly feel grief and humiliation. As Eric, Jenkins masterfully balances the stubborn pride of an authoritative patriarch with a mounting fear that everything is crumbling.
Everyone at the table suffers from economic instability – Brigid and Amy because their careers never took off, Eric and Deirdre because their long-term work, his at a private school and her office manager, are at risk for different reasons. Then there is Eric’s elderly mother, Momo (a sick Squibb), who suffers from severe dementia and lives with her son because a full-time job is too expensive.
We left out Richard, the boyfriend, because in five years he will inherit his family’s money, which will bring him contempt from Eric, who also scoffs at the money Richard and Brigid spend on both healthy food and therapy: “If you “You are so unhappy, why are you trying to live forever?” “
Moments like this promise a harsher evening as the hours go by. But they are nothing compared to the stinging revelation that comes at the end of the game.
And yet it is a family. Love is tested, but ultimately unconditional. As the bruised family scatters into the night, there is only one thing we seem to know for sure: next year they will gather around a table again, at some kind of table. It’s tempting to ask for another invitation.
3 stars out of 4
Rating: R (for some sexually explicit material and language)
Duration: 108 minutes