Review: In ‘Humor Me,’ a Dose of Borscht Belt for a Midlife Crisis

If “dad joke” is an insult, why isn’t “grandfather joke”? Do people get funnier with age?

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, New York Times

If “dad joke” is an insult, why isn’t “grandfather joke”? Do people get funnier with age?

Sam Hoffman, who founded the website Old Jews Telling Jokes, which was adapted into a book and an off-Broadway show, built a franchise that might persuade you that they do. His comedy avoids the fashionable confessional style in favor of borscht belt standards about hectoring mothers and religious figures walking into bars.

He has worked on movies for years, but his directorial debut, “Humor Me,” a lightly amusing stroll down some well-worn streets, shares a sensibility with his popular site, with narrative tacked on. It could be called: Middle-Aged Jew Not Telling Jokes.

It begins with a terrible day for a sad-sack playwright, Nate Kroll (Jemaine Clement). He loses his job. His wife leaves him for a French billionaire, and — conveniently, for the purposes of the plot — he doesn’t realize his lease is up. This forces him to move in with his father, Bob (Elliott Gould), in a retirement community. In an odd-couple scenario, Nate is self-serious, while his dad can’t stop joking. Nate meets a fellow midlife-crisis sufferer, Allison, a thin role played winningly by singer Ingrid Michaelson, and agrees to stage a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” with older women. Working on this show embarrasses him, but besides being an opportunity for more comic moments from senior citizens, this humble effort inevitably leads to an epiphany.

Among such old-school plot mechanics is one novel element involving re-enactments of jokes that act as a kind of Greek chorus while underlining a central theme: the power of jokes to bring people together and occasionally keep them apart.

But don’t get the wrong idea: The movie never gets too deep, which is half of its charm. The other half involves the low-key comic performances by a stellar cast including Annie Potts and Bebe Neuwirth, who plays a theater producer named C.C. Rudin.

Clements works wonders with a deadpan expression, imbuing his role with a repressed melancholy, a nice match for the poignant emotionalism of Gould’s Bob. Jokes matter to this old man, and he makes telling them seem like an act of vulnerability. One favorite is faking a heart attack, and when his son doesn’t laugh, Gould looks so wounded you worry he might really have one, suggesting a joke can kill even when it doesn’t.

“Humor Me”

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

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