'People Places Things'
‘People Places Things’ is about a middle-aged man awkwardly learning what it means to be an adult, and that man is played by a recognizable comedian stretching into drama for the first time. That makes it similar to about 87% of the indie dramedies made these days. Fortunately, thanks to a pair of delightful central performances and some painfully revealing work from writer/director James C. Strouse, the film has just enough laughs and bursts of honesty to make the whole thing worthwhile.
Jemaine Clement stars as Will Henry, one of those well-meaning sticks-in-the-mud. To be fair, he’s had a rough run. The opening scene sees him catch his wife (Stephanie Allynne) cheating with a portly nincompoop (Michael Chernus) at a birthday party for his twin daughters. So… not a great day.
Cut forward a year and Will is living in a tiny studio apartment drawing up a graphic novel about his endless depression. When he takes on dad duties so his ex-wife can pursue improv for some reason, Will also teaches at a local art college. The kids are predictably disinterested except for one (Jessica Williams) who tries to set him up with her mother (Regina Hall). That plays out about as awkwardly as you’d imagine to add another shovel full of shit onto Will’s sad little life. However, it’s also his first real stab at human connection since having his heart ripped out.
Maybe (just maybe) it could be the start of a comeback.
Yeah… I know. You’ve seen it all before. There’s honestly not much ingenuity in the storytelling here. However, from his earliest scripts such as ‘Lonesome Jim’, writer/director Strouse has always shown a key eye for awkward detail. It’s safe to say that the guy has experienced plenty of pain and discomfort in his life and he has a way to translating it to the screen playfully, honestly and hilariously. The movie has some pretty major laughs, always out of the most uncomfortable moments and underlined by some rather wonderful performances. The opening cheating/dumping/birthday sequence is a masterclass of cringe comedy with Clement bumbling from one couple’s candid conversation about not having kids into his own topless tragedy in a way that toys with symbolism and slapstick without ever losing a delicate sense of reality. Strouse knows how to take from life while still exaggerating for comedic and dramatic potential. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The performances go a long way in selling it, with Clement’s casting being a particular masterstroke. The gangly, bass-toned comic is generally used for surreal and cartoonish roles and does those well. Here, he gets to do his usual deadpan absurdity while also coming off as a painfully lost soul. It’s not as if Clement suddenly had to learn hard drama or anything of the sort. However, he shows a more sensitive and human side than he generally has before and pulls it off well enough that he could be an effective leading man if the opportunities arise. Stephanie Allynne gets more overtly silly in her role and it’s to her credit that she can steal laughs from Clement. (Few can.) Williams and Hall have fewer jokes to play with, but work well in the more intimate sides of the story and create rounded characters while admirably supporting Clement’s more serious moments. It’s a pretty fantastic cast and that’s just the thing that can make or break these sort of comedic dramas.
Unfortunately, as ‘People Places Things’ barrels towards its finish line, hard lessons must be learned and morals emerge, which the filmmakers don’t handle nearly as well. Strouse’s strengths are in capturing moments of carefully realized behavior. When the movie feels like a handful of well-observed scenes cobbled together, it works really well in its shaggy dog way. Once he starts laying on the cheese and shoving thesis statements into his characters’ mouths, the flick tends to fall apart. Thankfully, there’s far more good than bad here and if you’re wise enough to turn the movie off before the obvious end notes, you might even think you’ve caught something special. If nothing else, the movie should serve as a plea to get Jemaine Clement more roles stateside. With any luck, someone will listen.