What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Jim Strouse
Produced by: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Regina Hall, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby
Running Time (in min.): 85 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
Let’s be frank: the newest film from writer/director Jim Strouse (Lonesome Jim [2005, dir. Steve Buscemi], Grace is Gone ) is the best film about divorce since Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine – except there’s no divorce in it. Yes, there’s a breakup between the intellectual but repressed comic book artist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement, most famously of Flight of the Conchords) and his dissatisfied live-in partner Charlie (an outstanding Stephanie Allynne), but without the messy paperwork, the alimony payments, or lawyers badmouthing each other across a desk. Aware of these obnoxious and omnipresent tropes, People, Places, Things is devoid of nearly all of them, the result of which is one of the most adult scripts about contemporary relationships on the market.
I use that particular expression because despite the film’s rapturous World Premiere last week in competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it remains egregiously up for grabs. Strouse is a Sundance stalwart whose two previous features, including the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award-winning Grace, also premiered at the festival. The sublimity and depth that he brought to that film – which stars John Cusack in a career-best performance – gets pushed to a new echelon here to uproarious, lovable effect.
Once again, Strouse has elicited the absolute best from an ensemble of master joketellers and well-wrought characters. At center is Clement, beyond belief in his first major dramatic role and bound to become everyone’s favorite non-Ghost World graphic artist. His Will is a bit of a bumbler, but an amazing father to Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, simply precious) and an equally gifted teacher at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Mr. Henry, as he’s known, has several fans in the class, most adoringly the aspiring writer Kat (Jessica Williams). Kat’s talented, too, and ballsy, so when she learns that her professor is recently broken up from Charlie, she asks him to get in touch with her cute mom.
Will, lonely and introverted, obliges, leading to on-again, off-again hijinks with Diane (Think Like a Man’s Regina Hall, never ever better) and the beginnings of an emotional recovery. For Strouse, the machinations of the breakup are far less important than the way people like Will, Diane, and Charlie deal with pain, and his actors are more than up to the scrutiny. For Clement, Allynne, and Michael Chernus (as Charlie’s new fiancée), that means multiple sequences with the incorrigible Gadsby twins, which run the risk of feeling dramatically stilted, or worse, overedited and amateurish. But so unselfconscious are the young actresses, and so game the three adults in their lives, that instead they stand in for the general “people” of the title with immense humanity.
Strouse and cinematographer Chris Teague also manage a feat I’d long considered impossible: injecting the “place” of the title, New York City, with a renewed sense of complexity. Blink-and-you-miss-‘em visual jokes like Will’s being surrounded by nursing mothers in an Astoria coffee shop or the closing down of the local music school “due to a bomb threat” place easily against the sorts of jokes that might have landed in an early Woody Allen flick.
Likewise, Clement’s Will takes the Allen character and gives it a New Zealand accent, not to mention an improved face and body. In all seriousness, Will Henry is a startlingly rich creation and a reminder that Clement is one of our most gifted comic performers, a jack-of-all-genres artist whose versatility here recalls the dramatic work of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. His only real match amongst the exceptional cast is Allynne, a renowned improv performer (in “real life” and in the film) who in her first feature lead demonstrates the kind of naturalism that can’t be faked. Charlie, Will’s emotional foil and the film’s most troubled character, runs the greatest risk of alienating audiences; and Allynne throws caution to the wind, allowing Charlie’s rashness and vicissitudes to show themselves without shame.
In whole, People, Places, Things (let’s agree to call it “PPT” from now on) is both Strouse’s best feature ever and one of the festival’s most powerful pieces – making it a double threat when it does eventually get picked up (something than anyone who’s seen the film recognizes as a near-inevitability.) That it focuses so authentically and – dare I say it! – realistically on the breakdown of love ensures the kind of following that every independent comedy hopes for but few receive. And with such a beautiful film under their belts, Strouse and his collaborators, not the least of which is the graphic artist on whom Will’s work is based, deserve every ounce of praise coming their way.