With a vague, twee, non-descriptive title, People Places Things sets up your expectations from word one and rarely wavers from them. Starring Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), this is a cutesy indie comedy about a man-child growing up and learning to be a responsible father and a good man able to let go of being bitter. It’s fine, and not without certain charms, but it’s predictable and is something you’ve seen many times before.
Will Henry (Clement) is the father of six-year-old twin girls, and who is newly single after catching his wife in bed with an Off Broadway monologist, which is apparently a thing. He draws sad sack, Dan Clowes-like comics and graphic novels, and teaches the form at some sort of institution of higher learning that, like much else in People Places Things, is never fully drawn. The film follows him as he juggles being a father, a teacher, a lover, and as he tries to cope with his lingering resentment.
Will is droll and sarcastic, and his dry sense of humor carries the movie for a while and is the real highlight as he moves from one awkward encounter to the next. Clement delivers a nice performance as bitter, jaded teacher who asks his young, eager-to-learn students things like, “Why does life suck so bad?” and chides one when he responds, “It doesn’t.” He’s engaging in a rough, prickly way, but the path of the dour, cynical mentor who winds up learning just as much from his students, is well trod.
As Will is trying to teach a narrative form, there is an undercurrent in People Places Things about storytelling, especially in a visual medium like comics. He teaches his class about the power of juxtaposed images, how to use what’s not on the page to move a story forward, and a number of other similar techniques. This is where the film is the most interesting, and where it most stands out from the herd of similar films.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, and everything else plays out in the expected manner. One of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams, who does nice work in the earnest student role), sets Will up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall, also strong, fun, and engaging in an underwritten part). She’s a literature professor at Columbia and they argue about the cultural value of comics. At this point, the contributions of the form are pretty well recognized by academia, but low and behold, a few scenes later, Diane’s read a few comics and agrees that they have merit. Shocker.
The same predictability fills Will’s relationship with his ex-wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne). She tries to juggle the kids, her new fiancé, Will’s demands and depression, and attempts to discover her true self outside of her relationship. Maybe she made a mistake, maybe she still has unresolved issues with Will, and all of this gives him the opportunity to be the bigger person. These are all things that happen in real life, but they’re also things that happen, often, in the movies, and it’s difficult to get fully invested because of that fact.
Visually, People Places Things is very enclosed. The school is just a blank, generic classroom; Will’s apartment has zero personality; and aside from one early shot that shows the New York City skyline, there is little to establish location. There is talk about how much Will’s new neighborhood sucks and is out of the way, but you never see it for yourself until 70 minutes into an 85-minute-long film. Things start to crystallize as you realize, oh, his apartment is above a shady bodega in a seedy neighborhood. As you move out onto the city streets a bit, the film begins to breathe, but by this point, it’s too little, too late. Perhaps it’s all a metaphor for Will’s mental state, but the movie sure could have used some of that sense of place well before it arrives.
People Places Things isn’t a terrible movie, but even with a charismatic lead to carry the bulk of the weight, and a few strong supporting performances, the whole thing is so rote, so expected and unsurprising, that it never distinguishes itself from the pack of similarly themed dramatic indie comedies.