Sporting the most absurdly universalizing title since “Men, Women & Children,” “People, Places, Things” contains no insights into the human condition so profound as to warrant staking a claim on the world’s nouns. The cutesy story of a New York comicbook artist grappling with parenting after a breakup had its world-preem audience chuckling appreciatively at one-liners, but this mild crowdpleaser won’t be able to count on critics’ help in reaching people and places.
Writer-director James C. Strouse, credited here as Jim (and sans middle initial), got something of a pass with his mopey grief drama “Grace Is Gone,” which had a topical Iraq War premise; it won the audience and screenwriting awards in the dramatic competition at Sundance 2007. The similarly credulity-straining “People, Places, Things” is another type of movie that, for better or worse, often earns the derisive moniker “Sundance film.” It centers on a 40-year-old man experiencing a steady stream of quirky comic incident as he grapples with major life problems.
The film opens with Will (Jemaine Clement) searching for his partner, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), at their twin daughters’ birthday party, only to find her upstairs, having just finished shtupping Gary (Michael Chernus), an Off Broadway monologuist. (That job is “like a comedian without the jokes,” Will contemptuously tells his students at the School of Visual Arts, where Strouse himself teaches.)
One year later, with his daughters (Gia and Aundrea Gadsby, interchangeably adorable) now 6, Will is unattached and stuck living in studio apartment in Astoria, a neighborhood discussed as if it’s the boonies rather than a trendy, quick hop from Manhattan. Charlie, once skeptical of marriage, informs Will that she’s pregnant with Gary’s child and is planning to tie the knot. (Between this and “Mistress America,” the schlubby Chernus is cornering the market on roles in relationship-wrecking love triangles at this fest.)
Will loves his daughters and works hard to connect with them in the ways that single dads in movies usually do. In “Grace Is Gone,” the army-vet father played by John Cusack brought his kids on a road trip. Will takes his daughters camping, albeit briefly.
A student, Kat (Jessica Williams, “The Daily Show”), sets Will up with her mother, Diane (the wonderful Regina Hall), a literature professor at Columbia. She’s seeing someone else but begins to suspect that she has feelings for Will. The romance between two people still healing from other relationships is sweet, and “People, Places, Things” does make the case for Clement, who shows deft timing all around, as a serious leading man.
Some of the detail in Will’s comicbook classes is interesting, even if his discussion of how students should “respect that gap between your panels” is a bit on-the-nose as a metaphor. (Gray Williams did the original artwork.) The movie also deserves credit for stopping short of the most pat possible ending.
But too often, particularly after Will is left with the girls for a week, “People, Places, Things” plays like a sitcom “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Will has no food in the house and orders emergency pizza. He oversleeps in getting his daughters to school on time. When, on another day, school is canceled because of a bomb threat, he awkwardly begs Kat to babysit, even though she’s supposed to be in the class he’s running out to teach.
For a film with one eye on messy, real emotions, “People, Places, Things” undercuts itself with goofy humor. Charlie whines incessantly about how much work she’s putting into her improv classes. We’re meant to believe Will is so oblivious that he can compliment Diane on the pork chops she made for dinner, not realizing he’d eaten swordfish. One of Will’s students presents an drawing assignment on how he learned to masturbate, in one instance of the occasional raunchiness that may situate “People, Places, Things” in a limbo rating-wise.
Tech contributions, including a twinkly score from Mark Orton, are undistinguished. Despite the use of real New York locations, the movie shows surprisingly little city feel.