Charmingly every-day and cynically sweet, James Strouse's People, Places, Things (2015) is a playful illustration of the struggles of heartsick, 40-something nice-guys. We all know them: divorced and a bit adrift with a couple of kids, trying to understand the gap between where their life is and where they imagined it would be. This film is absolutely for the faint of heart; lightweight and quippy, it keeps a pretty steady comedic roll and is definitely not lacking in its share of flimsy sitcom-style tropes. Cutesy jokes about grown men being unable to dress well and efficiently care for themselves and their kids abound. Idiot students invariably disrupt class and make jokes about masturbation. Crazy wives are crazy. The impeccable comedic execution of main character Will, played by Jemaine Clement, as well as supporting cast members Stephanie Allynne, Regina Hall, and Jessica Williams, definitely elevate this film from just a pleasant and heartwarming flick to a cleverly executed, if light, comedic experience. What this film lacks in profundity, it makes up for in relatability and spirit raising adorableness that has the potential to appeal to a wide audience.
Will is a graphic novelist and professor in New York, who separates from his partner Charlie (Allynne) within the first five minutes of the film after he stumbles upon her alone with another man, and in his t-shirt, upstairs at their twin daughters' birthday party. He then finds himself relegated to a lonely apartment in Astoria, suddenly thrown off course and missing Charlie and his daughters. Seeing his thinly veiled gloom in class, college student Kat (Williams) invites him to her home for dinner with the intention of fixing him up with her mother Diane, a quick witted Columbia University professor played by Hall. A guarded romance ensues while Will struggles over the increasing complexity of his dynamic with Charlie, as well as his new life, fatherhood, and just general inability to pull himself together. Close camera-work connects us intimately to each defeated response and hilariously mumbling reproach Will dishes out to those around him. Comedy strongman Clement flawlessly carries the timing and tone of this amusingly reflective film. The musical score by Mark Orton is gently bright and upbeat, appropriately unobtrusive for its lightweight context. Will's own comics charmingly serve as a secondary source for connectivity with the backstory and not-so-underlying narrative of detached loneliness for a character that had seemingly always desired to be a touch farther removed from those around him that he managed to be - until now.
Will's comics are a good symbol for the film itself - quirky, cute, superficially grazing the human condition and leaving little work to the viewer in decoding Will's underlying emotions. We don't have to think too much - just as when reading a comic the thoughts and sentiment are right there in plain sight. There's not much to be done beyond minding the "gap" between your comic's panels, as Will covers in class, riding close to the line of obviating the weightiest symbolism this film has to offer, while its main man searches for what was missed in the in-between spaces he may not have been giving the necessary attention. Still, the film manages to toe that line effectively, maintaining its romantic comedy air while staying equally rooted in realistic emotions and resolutions.
While Clement played a significant role in helping to elevate this film, for me, his presence also detracted oddly. As pleasant and consistent as this film was, I found myself continually expecting the disarming peculiarity and heart of the directorial influence of Clement's usual partner in film Taika Waititi (What We Do in The Shadows, and Eagle vs. Shark). It's quirky and very personal air seemed to nod to the same stylistic motivations, but failed to deliver that level of uniqueness and sentiment that really makes films like Waititi's sink into your pores and stay there. Yet, much of the charm of People, Places, Things may be found in its ordinariness. A pleasantly accessible film with ample charisma and comedic talent, People, Places, Things is nothing more (or less!) than an effortlessly funny, easy to watch and easy to like crowdpleaser.
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