Movie Review: “People Places Things”

Starring
Jemaine Clement, Stephanie Allynne, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams
Director
James C. Strouse

Writer/director James C. Strouse has become somewhat of a regular at the Sundance Film Festival; all four of his movies have premiered in Park City, which makes you wonder whether he has an open invitation to screen each new project there. (Not that his previous appearances weren’t fully deserved.) Though it’s been six years since his last film, the Sam Rockwell-led high school basketball drama, “The Winning Season,” Strouse is back with his most personal movie to date. The generically titled “People Places Things” explores pretty familiar territory without bringing anything new to the table, but it’s a nonetheless sweet and honest little indie that’s held together by a great performance from leading man Jemaine Clement.

The New Zealand-born actor stars as Will Henry, a graphic novelist and professor at the School of Visual Arts who lives with his longtime girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) and their twin daughters, Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby), in Brooklyn. While entertaining guests at the girls’ fifth birthday party, Will accidentally walks in on Charlie having sex with another man in their bedroom. Charlie insists that she’s not happy anymore and wants a change in her life, so Will is forced to move into a small apartment in Astoria, only getting to see his daughters on the weekends. One year later, Will is still recovering from the break-up when one of his students (Jessica Williams) sets him up on a date with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall), a literature professor at Columbia University who could be just what Will needs to get him out of his funk. But after he expresses an interest in spending more time with his daughters, and that wish is granted when their nanny suddenly quits, Will’s life becomes chaotic as he must learn to juggle work with raising his kids and pursuing a casual fling with Diane.

Clement isn’t the first person you’d think of to play this sort of character, but it quickly becomes clear why Strouse cast him, because he has an innate charisma that makes him incredibly likable without having to try too hard. Though “People Places Things” is tailored to Clement’s strengths as an actor with well-placed moments of deadpan humor, it also gives him a chance to flex his dramatic muscle, or at the very least, showcase a different, more mature side compared to his goofier work in “Flight of the Conchords,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Dinner for Schmucks.” The rest of the cast provides solid support, but no one really stands out apart from “The Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams, who exhibits real potential in her first major film role.

“People Places Things” isn’t overtly funny, but it does earn some decent laughs along the way, which helps to balance out the more serious aspects of the story. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Strouse’s latest movie is semi-autobiographical, because Charlie is portrayed as such a selfish bitch (especially considering her poor choice of time and place to be caught cheating on Will) that it feels, at worst, like a really juvenile way to get revenge on his ex, and at best, like a dose of desperately overdue catharsis. Though that natural bias unfairly places the audience on Will’s side from the very start, he does eventually accept some of the blame for their failed relationship. It’s all handled a little too neatly to leave much of an impression, however, which has always been the problem with Strouse’s films, because while “People Places Things” is a moderately enjoyable, feel-good dramedy, it could have been even better if it didn’t play things so safe.

  

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