People Places Things screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center through August 27. For additional ticketing information, click here.
Picayune yet amiable, James C. Strouse’s People Places Things makes its most convincing argument for Jemaine Clement. Best known as one half of New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo Flight of the Conchords, it has taken a series of middling supporting roles to produce this starring role, and he certainly makes the best of it. This unsophisticated and at times regressive exercise in paternal maturation and domestic disarray is elevated by his sanguine performance.
Will (Jermaine Clement) is a graphic novelist and instructor at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. The film opens with a set of illustrations that depict Will and his wife Charlie’s (Stephanie Allynne) marriage and pregnancy - highlighting their blissful courtship to the birth of their twin girls. Yet the comic panels reflect a growing despondency between the two, where on the twins’ fifth birthday, Will finds his wife with another man. A year later and the couple have separated, with Strouse examining Will’s loneliness and curmudgeonly despair as he embraces fatherhood and tries to piece his life back together.
Strouse’s screenplay more or less reads like an episode of Louie, where paternal anxieties meet with the mundane everyday. But whereas Louis C.K. isolates these concerns as vignettes within a larger tapestry of existential angst, Strouse’s focus is both more dramatically telegraphed and less surreal. The characters in his screenplay behave in accordance to a set of circumstances, where they serve to function the events of the narrative in a contrived and cacophonous way. There’s simply not much depth to Will, Charlie, their children, or any of the supporting cast that compose the film.
This problem is compounded by Strouse’s limp direction and bland visual approach, which is typified by repetitive exchanges in apartment corridors. His most intricately staged sequence involves a shift in the parental vanguard where Will and Charlie argue over their children’s increasingly chaotic scheduling, as Charlie, dressed in a wedding gown, moves from dominating the conversation to conceding to Charlie’s subdued rationalism. But whereas the sequence is a competent and composed visual story, the dialogue highlights Strouse’s limitations: boxing in Will as compassionate and warm, Charlie as adulterous and selfish. Strouse only futilely makes efforts to complicate this dynamic, registering as something that reads as both unkind and disingenuous.
These screenwriting and directorial faults compromise the picture, but Clement is an unforgettable presence. There are moments scattered throughout the film that suggest a degree of improvisation, where his smart and quippy remarks belong to a different film altogether. A particular sequence sees Will and a new love interest (Regina Hall) exchange generous platitudes that works solely because of Clement’s comic timing and cadence. He exudes the warmth that the character requires, but also instills it with a darker, more cutting, edge. Given the labored circumstances of the screenplay, it’s through Clement’s thoughtful performance that I was able to relent and accept the film’s world. The film’s blemishes are unforgivable, but Clement salvages all he can.