As They Made Us leans heavily into flat sitcom tropes, neutering any potential feeling the family drama might have otherwise realized.
Family dramedy As They Made Us marks the writing-directing debut of Mayim Bialik, current Jeopardy! hostess and star of the wildly successful sitcoms Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. On its surface, the film appears to be a bit of a departure for the television veteran, what with its portrayal of such devastating subject matter as death, child abuse, and domestic violence. Unfortunately, everything here is rendered in a key so broad that the only thing missing is an oppressive laugh track, which frankly shouldn’t be as surprising as it ultimately proves to be, even as the tale itself is semi-autobiographical. Dianna Agron stars as Abigail, a recently divorced mother of two and struggling writer whose life comes to a crashing halt after her sickly and aging father, Eugene (Dustin Hoffman), is given only a few months left to live. It’s this diagnosis that awakens painful memories long since buried, as Dianna confronts a past that includes everything from outright neglect to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and equally insidious/enabling mother, Barbara (Candice Bergen), the results of which sent older brother Nathan (Simon Helberg) packing long ago.
As They Made Us is undeniably heartfelt in the ways it presents Abigail’s familial struggles, a woman desperately trying to reconcile a horrific past with a present that asks her to feel sympathy for a man who ultimately inspired as many laughs as he did tears. Years of regret and anger have turned Eugene into a man desperate for forgiveness as he enters his final days, the complexities of which Bialik is unable to render with anything resembling insightfulness or artistry. To call it surface-level would almost be generous, as Bialik keeps interrupting the proceedings with lame jokes that are clearly meant to bring levity to the proceedings but ultimately render them meaningless. Bergen’s portrayal of Barbara is especially perplexing, a mother who enabled a monster that brought out her worst instincts, yet in the present-day scenes is nothing more than a punchline delivery system, comedically mispronouncing names and relentlessly flirting with any man in a 20-mile radius. That Bergen leans heavily into these sitcom tropes is unfortunate, as Agron brings genuine nuance to a character that is a simmering cauldron of self-loathing contradictions, desperately trying to make sense of the senseless. After her fantastic work in films as varied as Shiva Baby and Novitiate, it’s clear that Agron is one great role and filmmaker away from superstardom, and she does what she can with a role as underwritten as this one. Hoffman and Helberg equally try to find the humanity within their stereotypes, each having a moment or two to shine even as Bialik desperately tries to extinguish their light. Meanwhile, that this looks as flat and artless as a sitcom is both unsurprising and an insult to modern-day sitcoms. Ultimately, As They Made Us feels like a therapy exercise, the random scribbling of notes in an effort to better understand the present and shed light on past transgressions. And then the film goes and ends on a note of healing that feels as inauthentic as everything else on display; what kind of reward does one expect if they are unwilling to do the work? It’s a sentiment Bialik should take to heart, as audience members are far less forgiving than your average analyst.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — April 2022.