Amy Schumer found happiness. Her moving, funny new TV show is the result
In the Hulu series “Life & Beth,” created and partly written and directed by Amy Schumer, Schumer plays Beth, a sales representative for a midlevel wine distributor in New York City that even her boss (Murray Hill) describes as mediocre. Though she is good at her job, and up for a promotion, her claim of leading a great life — “I am probably the most happy, satisfied person in this entire mall,” she tells her lovingly critical mother, Jane (Laura Benanti), on an uncomfortable shopping trip — is clearly a case of the lady protesting too much. There is a weight on Beth; the very air seems to slow her down. When her mother dies suddenly, her lack of tears is seen by those around her as symptomatic of a disordered personality. (The show is quite acute on the numbness that can accompany the loss of a parent.)
With her relationship with longtime boyfriend and co-worker Matt (Kevin Kane) coughing and sputtering and a 40th birthday looming, she abandons Manhattan for the Long Island hamlet where she grew up, there to face old wounds and court new possibilities. Extended flashbacks portray Beth’s middle-school years, an anthology of challenges and humiliations at home, school and in basement rec rooms — though not without moments of hope, elation and best friendship. In the present tense, Beth visits a local winery to drum up business (Jon Glaser plays its uncooperative, irritated, irritating owner) and, at the connected organic farm, meets John (Michael Cera), the farmer.
“Life & Beth” has the curious quality of being at once a little awkward and exactly what it wants to be. Its parts don’t all tonally mesh — it is an amalgam of romantic comedy, straight drama, bits and sketches and adapted stand-up, with the odd line that seems to come more from Schumer than her character — and at times it feels constructed to deliver a point, a project as much as a story. But it is also clearly sincere and personal, salted (like Schumer’s script for “Trainwreck”) with autobiographical details. Like Beth, Schumer, who grew up on Long Island, experienced a turn in family fortunes when their high-end baby furniture business went under; her father — Michael Rapaport plays Beth’s — was an alcoholic; her parents divorced. (Whether her mother made a habit of short-term relationships with married men, I don’t know, but it’s Jane’s defining feature.)
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The series is also a love letter to Schumer’s husband, Chris Fischer, a chef and sometime organic farmer (and her co-star on Food Network’s “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook”), here molded into the person of Cera’s John. (There is great authority in the series’ discussions of produce.) It’s frequently very funny, full of bright comic turns, and often quite moving, even beautiful, sometimes just for the space of a shot, in a way that might make you reconsider a character. It’s sentimental in the end, but that is what sometimes happens when artists grow happy in their life.
The twist in the rom-com is that the leading man lacks the usual qualities of a romantic lead — though, that said, there is a whole body of romantic comedy based on falling in love with unconventional people, which makes “Life & Beth” not … unconventional. As will be known to viewers of “Expecting Amy Schumer,” the excellent HBO Max docuseries in which she gives birth to a Netflix stand-up special and her first child, or to viewers of said special, Schumer’s husband, John’s model, is on the autism spectrum. John doesn’t know how to whisper, or how to lie, which means he also inconveniently takes others at their word; he lacks social graces, obsessing about a boat in the midst of a funeral. Cera plays him with a slightly flat affect that reads as vexing or charming depending on the scene. (That the details are at once so specific — any regular viewer of television and film will recognize them immediately — and never named in the series seems strange, though the fact is that Fischer wasn’t diagnosed until after he and Schumer were married.)
Despite Beth’s myriad liabilities — “You are a red planet,” says her sister Ann (Susannah Flood) when Beth mentions John’s red flags — she is made less eccentric than most of the other characters we meet; and we are inclined to take her side, even when she seems less than kind, because we understand from those flashbacks that she’s hurt. (And because she’s the star, and she’s Amy Schumer, about whom we may already have good feelings; enough of us do, apparently, that she’s been tapped to co-host next week’s Oscars.)
One encounter, with a local hunk (Jonathan Groff) mocked for his tourist’s view of New York, did strike me as snobbish. And there is perhaps too clear a contrast between the Long Island of Beth’s old friends, with their air of vague domestic dissatisfaction, and John’s farm, where fiddles and mandolins fill the air at a birthday party and everyone looks comfortable in their skin — quirky, maybe, but centered, satisfied. Yet “Life & Beth” mostly withholds judgment, and where Beth is concerned supplies reasons.
The scenes set in the past, which exist to explain the present — including the mystery of what caused a rift between young Beth and her friend and protector Liz (Grace Power) — have an independent life and integrity, and are so well realized that one forgets how many times we have seen versions of these kids and their conflicts. It helps that they’re not played for comedy, but above all they’re brought to life by the actresses who play the younger versions of Beth and Ann. As Beth, Violet Young is a marvel, a little less sophisticated, a little more trusting than her peers, embodying the trauma her future self will compress into a knot of denial-wrapped sadness, but not past the odd moment of hopeful joy. As Ann, measuring her height every day, ready to believe her older sister when she tells her that living in a smaller house is better because “only losers live in big houses,” Lily Fisher has less to do but makes a delightful counterweight to Beth, too young to understand their circumstances.
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A bildungsroman set in late-maturing middle age, the series is plainly built around Beth’s halting journey toward mental and physical health. (That her back pain will be a plot point is clear from the first casual mention.) There are a number of encounters with medical professionals, including David Byrne as “Dr. B,” recommending she chew more and drink less; Lavar Walker as an old friend, now a pharmacist; Swann Gruen, removing a fish hook from a finger; and Phil Wang as a novice MRI technician who dreams of being a DJ — one might call him scene-stealing if the scene weren’t made to show him off.
Indeed, the series is stocked with comedians, also including Dave Attell as a rabbi, John Early and Kate Berlant as Beth’s prospective customers, Janelle James as a shopgirl, Yamaneika Saunders as Beth’s best old friend Maya and Gary Gulman as Maya’s “Jew date” — and Schumer is clearly giving them room to work, often sitting back and playing straight. (An extended conversation between Beth and Maya, which feels largely improvised, recalls the interview segments on her Comedy Central series “Inside Amy Schumer.”) As is true of much current comedy, the casting has the flavor of calling one’s friends and seeing if they’d like to come out and play.
And all of them, not least Hank Azaria as a funeral home director (an alternate title for the series might be “Three Funerals and No Weddings”), are on point. If I say that I especially enjoyed Flood as (quietly) angrier sister Ann, and Saunders as Maya, who provide different sorts of ballast for Beth and help give her dimension, that is only because their scenes have particularly stuck with me. Though the season has a self-contained arc, what’s here could easily support a second. Because life goes on.
‘Life & Beth’
When: Anytime, starting March 18
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