In the 1960s and ’70s, a fair number of now little-remembered American independent films were cute seriocomedies about the “little people” of the big city (usually the Big Apple). Descended from the populist writings of William Saroyan and Herb Gardner, they were full of moderately eccentric (and/or “ethnic”) behavior, humorous yelling, and the occasional windy speech celebrating the funny-sad struggles of being a yooman beink. You might think nobody misses these movies — certainly no one revives them — but apparently Dustin Guy Defa does. He must: He’s gone to the trouble of making a new one, even shooting on 16mm for extra retro ambiance.
“Person to Person” seems to be set in the here and now. It would clearly prefer otherwise, however, given the lengths gone to ensure that characters barely seem to know how the internet works, or center their lives around attaining rare vintage LPs. Nostalgia is one thing, but Defa’s feature itself is an example of reprising things about the past that didn’t particularly work. Mildly amusing, a tad amateurish in some aspects, this little ensemble piece about funny little people is ultimately just too damn little.
There was a similar air of inconsequentiality to the writer-director’s prior feature, 2011’s “Bad Fever.” (He’s also made several well-received shorts.) But that film flirted with darker ideas in its loose narrative of a young loser adrift in Defa’s hometown of Salt Lake City. “Person” aims for a familiar brand of shaggy-comedy-with-pathos that has very little edge, even in the strand that involves a possible murder.
Over the course of one fair-weather day in Manhattan, various characters go about their business, most consisting of various forms of hanging out. Newspaper reporter Phil (Michael Cera), who sidelines in a metal band, breaks in nervous and awkward new investigative trainee Claire (Abbi Jacobson). They end up chasing leads on a suspicious death case — maybe suicide, maybe homicide — that comes to hinge upon the victim’s broken watch, which his widow (Michaela Watkins) has left with a venerable timepiece repairman (Philip Baker Hall).
Meanwhile, fortyish dude-of-no-clear-profession Benny (Bene Coopersmith) is tipped to the availability of a valuable Charlie Parker recording on red vinyl, which he’s eager to purchase. But the transaction turns out to be a scam, leading to a bicycle pursuit betwixt angry customer and con artist (Buddy Duress). Having a rough day of his own is Benny’s temporary roommate Ray (George Semple III), who’s couch-crashing after breaking up with his girlfriend (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Having discovered her infidelity, he retaliated by posting some nude pics online; now she is mortified, and her musclebound brother is looking to teach him a lesson.
Representing the youth of today is perpetually mopey teen Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), who persuades best friend Melanie (Olivia Luccardi) to skip school yet again. Granted this free time, Melanie is mostly interested in making out as usual with her boyfriend (Hunter Zimny), while Wendy — who’s theoretically bi, but so far only lesbian in practice — grouses about being left alone with his friend (Ben Rosenfield), then having to sort out feeling actually kinda attracted to him.
Unlike most ensemble comedies of its nature, “Person to Person’s” story threads don’t really intersect, each puttering along amiably if forgettably until they reach some modest resolution. While some thesps (notably Cera and everyone else in the watch segment) manage to eke some wry fun out of the very mild, anecdotal screenplay, others strain a bit to pull off the whimsical, stylized naturalism this frail material needs. Too many of the jokes are limp on arrival (such as a running gag involving Benny’s worry whether a loud new shirt he’s wearing is right for him), and only a few of the performers here are skilled enough to make such weak stuff play better than it is.
At its worst, “Person to Person” remains an innocuous diversion. Trouble is, at its best it’s pretty much the same thing. Even if she may be echoing the grainy, natural-lighting style of an early “indie” era, the look of Ashley Connor’s Super-16 lensing is still nondescript. For a movie that ought to be steeped in authentic New York City atmosphere, Defa’s feature gets way too much of what texture it has from a soundtrack of retro R&B and jazz obscurities of the type that Benny is presumably an authority on.