Thursday, August 13, 2015

People Places Things (opens in Cleveland August 14th at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[PEOPLE PLACES THINGS opens in Cleveland on Friday August 14th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

There is nothing revolutionary about James C. Strouse's PEOPLE PLACES THINGS. Many of the story elements of this modest independent have been seen many times, even in films as recent as this summer's Infinitely Polar Bear, which also depicted a dad struggling to care for two young daughters. Yet the movie has its own distinctive charm, as well as a disarming lead performance by New Zealand-born Jemaine Clement.

Clement plays Will Henry, a 40-year-old graphic novelist who lives in Manhattan with his girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allwynne) and their twin daughters, Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby). During the girls' fifth birthday party, Will walks in on Charlie having sex with Gary (Michael Chernus), a chubby monologuist. Absurdly, she blames Will for her infidelity, claiming “You pushed me into this.” She hasn't been happy. She wants to study improv. Will's response is one of existential gloom: “Happiness is not really a sustainable condition.”

Relegated to a studio apartment in Astoria, Will carries his depression into his classroom at the School of Visual Arts, where he teaches aspiring writer-illustrators. (Will's hyper-realistic art in the movie was drawn by Gray Williams.) “Why does life suck so hard?” he writes on the board as the topic of the day. A sympathetic student, Kat (Jessica Williams, familiar from The Daily Show), invites him to dinner. Will thinks she's asking him for a date, and when he demurs, Kat recoils in horror. “That is so gross!” She actually wants him to meet her single mom, Diane (Regina Hall). Diane is an American literature professor at Columbia who thinks graphic novels are beneath consideration. Will's dinner with her is amusingly awkward. Is she familiar with New Zealand? No, Diane says, but she has seen all the “Hobbit” movies. “So you know all about us,” Will says drily, “and our ways.”

The film is mostly concerned with Will's efforts to be a good dad, juggling parenting with Charlie's progressing relationship with Gary, his tentative relationship with Diane, his classes, and the book he's working on. The estranged couple can't quite get the hang of dividing the girls' time, leading to many panicky epidodes of rushing about. “You can't just pass them back and forth like puppies,” Diane admonishes at one point. Will and Charlie also have unresolved feelings, leading Will to think they might get back together.

Will is a loving and creative dad, flying kites with them, taking them camping, and carting them to their cello lessons. The father-and-daughters motif is clearly important to Strouse, who also wrote and directed the sad Grace Is Gone (2007), in which a father takes his girls on the road to avoid telling them their mother was killed in Iraq. Strouse may have less feeling for the experiences of women. Charlie's behavior, for instance, seems questionable from the start (shagging her lover during the kids' birthday party?) . All we know about Charlie is that she “gave up everything” to support Will's comics career. Diane's story is also a bit hackneyed: she's been disappointed many times by men.

The best moments belong to Clement, whose background is in musical sketch comedy. The film's main pleasure is in his deadpan, Kiwi-accented delivery of clever remarks, and his low-key banter with his romantic rival, Gary. 3 out of 4 stars.

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