Jemaine Clement has had an unusual career; emerging from a New Zealand folk comedy duo into international prominence, his knack for droll, deadpan comedy paired with his sometimes-imposing physicality has made him perfect to play anything from egotistical creatures (Rio, Rio 2, Despicable Me, and those “Hannah and Her Horse” DirecTV commercials) to super-villains (Men in Black III, Muppets Most Wanted). His unique ability to deliver dry humor while looking like a caveman in a suit makes him particularly well suited for the latter, since he can play commanding and threatening while he is also funny and therefore not too scary for family-friendly films. His most acclaimed role, aside from the breakthrough of Flight of the Conchords, is probably in the underappreciated goofball comedy Gentlemen Broncos, directed by the same duo behind Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. This netted Clement an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but still landed generally in the world of comedy. People Places Things is Clement’s first real attempt to break out from the realm of comedic, supporting characters into the world of the serious actor, and the result is a mixed bag.
Director: James C. Strouse
Producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Writer: James C. Strouse
Music: Mark Orton
Cinematographer: Chris Teague
Editor: Colleen Sharp
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Alynne, Michael Chernus
Premiere: January 26, 2015 – Sundance
US Theatrical Release: August 14, 2015
US Distributor: The Film Arcade
Clement plays Will Henry, a graphic novelist and professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, who catches his wife cheating during their twin daughters’ birthday party. We flash forward to a year later, when an enterprising art student, Kat (Jessica Williams) sets up a depressed Will with her mother Diane (Regina Hall). They seem a likely pairing—both Will and Diane are professors in prestigious New York institutions, he at SVA and she at Literature at Columbia, and they both have wry, world-weary perspectives—but they butt heads on a seemingly banal issue: whether or not graphic novels should be considered literature.
It may seem odd that this tiny argument is important enough to merit noting in a brief plot summary, but the fact is, that’s about all there is to this plot. The biggest conflict we face is a spat between academic disciplines, and it’s one that feels like it was already settled by the early 90’s. Call me naïve, but I doubt there are many Columbia Literature professors so hopefully out of touch that they have never cracked open one of the many canonically recognized comics of the 80s and 90s. People, Places, Things has stumbling romance, and there are some vague statements about the challenges that come with parenting and dating in contemporary New York, but the whole plot ends up feeling like a whitewashed episode of Louie with Clement clumsily inserted as a twee graphic novelist.
Some of the fault lies in the editing and direction, which seems engineered to undercut any of the natural comedic timing that the actors (primarily Williams and Clement) bring to the screen. Maybe that’s intentional, to bring the story away from clever lines toward its emotional core, but the concept is so trite it’s hard to have much sympathy.
Much of Will’s emotional development is told through the panes of graphic novels that he works on—drawn carefully and elegantly by comic book artist Gray Williams—but the story they tell is a heavy-handed cliché. It’s as if we are reading the Clif Notes version of Will’s emotional life; everything is spelled out too clearly, making these inserts feel condescending rather than enlightening.
The biggest flaw this film suffers from is that it does not know how seriously to take itself. Is this a touching, light, emotional drama or a goofy, dry comedy? It seems to aim for both goals at once, and in so doing misses the mark. Director James C. Strouse just doesn’t have the chops to skirt those narrative borders in interesting ways. The quippy one-liners (90% of which are included in the film’s trailer) pull us away from any real emotional connection with the characters, yet they aren’t frequent enough to make this feel completely comedic. At the same time, the bland, archetypical characters would be fine for a joke-stuffed comedy, but they feel insufficient for a film that seems to be reaching for emotional depth.
This isn’t the fault of the actors—Jessica Williams and Jemaine Clement both do particularly admirable jobs with what they’re given—but the script is so unexceptional it’s hard to take seriously. It feels like an admirable, if inelegant, first feature, but this is writer-director James C. Strouse’s third. It has a bit of charm peeking in at the corners, but largely this film is as bland as its title.