PEOPLE PLACES THINGS
Director: James C. Strouse
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Regina Hall, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Michael Chernus
MPAA Rating: (for language including some sexual references, and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 8/14/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 13, 2015
People Places Things is an unexpected pleasure. The story is not new. Indeed, it's pretty much a cliché. A divorced man tries to juggle two jobs, while finding himself with the unanticipated responsibility of becoming a more involved father and unable to deal with lingering feelings of love toward his ex-wife. There's nothing novel, revelatory, or even particularly deep about this situation and these characters, but writer/director James C. Strouse is generous in regards to them. We really like or at least understand each of the major players here, and as a result, we want them to find the happiness that has evaded them for so long.
That's enough, right? It certainly feels that way by the end of film, because we don't have any feelings of ill will toward any of these characters. That includes the ones who seem to exist to provide conflict for the protagonist's slow, unsteady progression toward being fine with the messed-up way things are.
Our man with the troublesome insecurity and painful uncertainty is Will Henry (Jemaine Clement), a comic book artist whose work is almost too autobiographical. Yes, he teaches his students about the meaning behind the old "This is not a pipe" drawing of a pipe, explaining that a thing is not always as it seems, so he probably would deny that the hero of his comics is representative of himself. Then again, the comic character really looks like him and, in one series of drawings, goes through his entire life thinking to himself, "I'd rather be alone."
That preference, he later admits, is part of the reason things became difficult between him and his ex-wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne). She was busy raising their twin daughters Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) while earning a living, allowing Will the chance to pursue his dream. Eventually, he "got used to the silence." In a sequence of drawings that unfold during the opening credits, we see the cartoon character that isn't but kind of is Will gradually separate himself from the family unit. By the end, he's present—but barely so.
On the day of the party for his daughters' fifth birthday, Will finds Charlie and Gary (Michael Chernus) in a state of post-coital awkwardness, which becomes even more uncomfortable as a confounded Will tries to understand why Charlie wants a divorce. One year later, Will has moved into his own place. He sees his daughters on the weekends and teaches a comic class at a local college (The classroom scenes here don't feel like an actual job for Will, instead of easy opportunities to push various themes). He has become successful enough as an artist that people in the know are aware of his work, and he's currently working on some new material, in which the character who is and isn't him realizes that there's a giant wall between him and his old life.
The feeling becomes worse when Charlie tells him that she's pregnant and that she's going to marry Gary. Will reminds her that she said she didn't want to get married again because it was too difficult. Not being married, she responds, is tough, too, and she wants someone to be there for her when she's "old and gross." "I was going to be there," Will responds with puppy-dog eyes.
All of this has, perhaps, sounded a bit serious, but it isn't. There's an exceptionally light touch to this material, provided by Strouse's smart, joke-filled screenplay and Clement's dryly bewildered performance. This isn't much of a stretch for the comedic actor, but it hardly matters. Clement carries the film with his engaging combination of biting but playful sarcasm and emotional authenticity. He's not afraid to let Will appear almost childish in his emotions, either. This isn't a man who understands emotional complexity, and that's fine.
The story presents Will with a string of little, everyday challenges. After the girls' nanny quits, Charlie lets Will spend more time with them. He has to figure out his daughters' schedule—wake them up early enough to make the commute, make sure they're fed, and get to them to school on time. This is a greater challenge than it might seem for Will (He tells the girls that they'll wake up at 6 a.m., but after they ask their father if he has ever woken up that early, he amends the time, after a precise beat, to 6:45).
He even starts a new love life—somewhat. One of his students (Jessica Williams) invites him to dinner for a casual date with her mother Diane (Regina Hall). It's uncomfortable (Strouse provides plenty of opportunities for these characters to dangle above the pit of potential social mortification), but after Will drops off his daughters at Diane's apartment so that his student can babysit them, the two become better acquainted. Charlie, meanwhile, is scared that Gary might be having second thoughts, and Will is certain that provides him with a chance to rekindle that bond.
As good as he is here, Clement receives a lot of fine support from the rest of the cast. Charlie's insistence on finding out who she really is as a person seems a bit flighty at first (She enrolls in an improv class), but Allynne eventually lets us see a woman who is sincere about her uncertainty. Hall makes the most of her handful of scenes as a woman who has been through enough to know what she doesn't want out of a relationship.
Whatever personal issues they have and whatever external problems they encounter, these characters are essentially capable people, and that alone is kind of refreshing. People Places Things observes as they learn that they're capable of more than they believed.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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