As far as trifles go, People Places Things is more flavorful than its individual ingredients suggest.
Jemaine Clement has really spread his wings since “Flight of the Conchords” wrapped over half a decade ago. Just this year, he saw his co-directorial debut and starring turn in vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows become a sleeper hit; he appeared alongside Sam Rockwell and Amy Ryan in Don Verdean, which premiered at Sundance and inked distribution with Lionsgate; he recently announced collaboration with Judd Apatow on a four-episode HBO series that will be “like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ but comedy”; and he broke through as a leading man for indie comedy People Places Things.
Much like its uninspired title, this romantic comedy hinges on a generic plot. People Places Things isn’t a film with a new story to tell. Creative, indecisive guy loses quirky, confused girl due to relationship ennui, and two adorable kids are caught in the middle—all in New York City, of course. The bulk of the film involves Will (Clement) trying to figure out his new life. He teaches a graphic novel-writing class at a local university, giving director James C. Strouse the chance to visually render Will’s emotions in his many revealingly personal sketches. Will also struggles through navigating joint custody with the unpredictable Charlie (Stephanie Allyne) in order to spend more time with his twin daughters (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby). Soon, he’s even quasi-dating a student’s mother (Regina Hall). The one constant in this film is that it’s never clear exactly what either Will or Charlie want because neither can make up their respective minds about much at all.
On paper, this sounds like pure vanilla. The frequent acoustic guitar strums and twee toy piano plinks certainly won’t let you forget that you’re watching an indie film. And People Places Things doesn’t offer much in the way of satisfying resolution, instead just kind of petering out. But at 85 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and performances here are compelling enough to hold interest. Clement and Hall strike up a believably tense but palpable flirtation. Jessica Williams, who’s cast as Hall’s daughter and Clement’s student, plays it straight as a no-bullshit 19-year-old despite her “Daily Show” comedic cred. Will’s interactions with his daughters are heartwarming without ever quite stooping to outright sentimentality. And even though Charlie is maddeningly wishy-washy, her flummoxed persona resonates as endemic of affluent first-world problems.
As far as trifles go, People Places Things is more flavorful than its individual ingredients suggest. Clement brings pathos to his role, even if much of his problem lies in the fact that he simply needs to grow a spine. When he catches Charlie in the act early on, his attempt at fisticuffs with her lover amounts to an awkward embrace, and scenes like this call to mind the milquetoast nature of Clement’s fictionalized self from “Flight of the Conchords.” Hall sizzles as his prestigious English Lit professor love-interest, condescending to his (and her daughter’s) passion for comics simply as a means to create enough of an emotional barrier. Ultimately, though, there’s not quite enough to this film to give it any sort of lasting resonance. As a way to spend a pleasant-enough 85 minutes, People Places Things is serviceable, and it’s good to see Clement ascend to leading man. Hopefully, next time he’s given a role with a bit more edge.