People Places Things
2015, R, 85 min. Directed by James C. Strouse. Starring Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Celia Au.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 21, 2015
By Hollywood movie standards, People Places Things is decidedly low-stakes. It’s not like there’s an asteroid crashing to Earth or anything. But real-life cataclysms tend to be more of the domestic variety, and that’s the kind that opens this indie relationship comedy, as the gloomy graphic novelist and adjunct professor Will Henry (Clement) catches Charlie (Allynne), his long-term partner and mother of their twin daughters, in flagrante delicto with another man. In another movie, that revelation might lead to verbal fireworks or very physical fisticuffs. Here, after a brief, unmuscled tussle between Will and Charlie’s tubby lover, Gary (Chernus), she gives Will a sad shrug and declares their years-long union over. Cut to a year later.
Arguably, there’s greater dramatic potential in what passes in that first year post-breakup, but writer/director James C. Strouse (Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season) sets a more challenging agenda for the film: to really settle into Will’s rut and explore the sort of stasis that can swallow whole years of a life. The film’s ambitions, and its observations, are tinier then, but also more pinpointed. People Places Things takes a tuning fork to the title’s broad swath to find sounds that are at once familiar and true. For instance: The awful courteousness people who used to be lovers take when they’re lashed together as co-parents – you can actually hear Will’s voice pitch higher on the phone, as careful and nonthreatening as a customer service rep – and how ruinously fast that polite stance dissolves when old wounds reopen.
Will’s wounds are barely scabbed over. When he dumps his despair onto a roomful of undergrads, one of his students, Kat (Williams, a Daily Show correspondent), invites him over to dinner, thinking he might hit it off with her single mom, Diane (Hall). But the film means to do something more interesting than just dangle a new love interest. Diane’s troubled experiences as a divorcée and Kat’s bad memories of watching new boyfriends shuttle in and out resonate with the new normal that Will and his 6-year-old daughters (cute, but just props) are now muddling through.
Gently funny and admirably, even unfashionably humane, People Places Things is at its best beat-to-beat. Take two steps back, and the big picture reads more tractionless, and so modest it risks disappearing into itself. But Clement – a New Zealand comic talent most famous stateside as one half of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords duo – carries the film as its compelling and compassionate but befuddled lead. Playing someone who prefers solitude but hates feeling lonely (a not-uncommon contradiction), he delivers his lines deadpan, deceptively sleepy, almost in slow-motion – the just-right speed for someone watching his life whiz by, and uncertain if he has the wherewithal to wrest back control of it.