Admittedly, coming up with a title for a movie can be difficult, especially when the movie in question is one of those quirky relationship comedies (with a dash of earnest drama) that litter Sundance every year. But it really feels as if writer-director Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season) just gave up when he decided to call his third feature People Places Things. Yes, it’s Nouns: The Movie, and that title’s potential applicability to virtually every film ever made betrays the project’s fundamentally generic nature. In this case, the people are a sad-sack cartoonist teacher and various members of his family, professional life, and love life; the places are remarkably nondescript New York City locations; and the things are rampant cutesiness, improbable spontaneous decisions, indie-movie clichés, and the occasional decent one-liner.
Reportedly a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Strouse (with cartooning substituted for filmmaking), Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) is first seen searching for his live-in girlfriend, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), in the middle of their twin daughters’ 5th birthday party. Is it likely that she’d pick this particular moment to have sex with another man (Michael Chernus) in the upstairs bedroom? Not very, but Will catches them in the act, at which point the film jumps forward a year to find the couple split up, with Will doing his best to be a father to the girls (Aundrea Gadsby and Gia Gadsby) on weekends. Though he’s still hung up on cheatin’ Charlie, he nonetheless allows Kat (Jessica Williams), one of the students in his cartooning class, to set him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall). Just when Will and Diane finally start hitting it off, however, Charlie suddenly expresses doubts about her impending marriage, inspiring Will to abruptly end his new relationship in the hope of resuscitating his old one.
Strouse’s excellent first screenplay, Lonesome Jim (the film was directed by Steve Buscemi), was rooted in a unique milieu and crammed with arresting, concrete detail. By contrast, People Places Things, though reportedly also based on Strouse’s own experience, plays like a mediocre, bloated sitcom episode—never novel or insightful, and only moderately funny. Clement was both hilarious and surprisingly virile earlier this year as a vampire in What We Do In The Shadows, but he inhabits a more conventional nice-guy role here, and only occasionally finds an opportunity to score laughs. Nor does his ostensible heartbreak register. Mostly, he just pals around with the two little girls, who are jointly adorable in a way that feels slightly manufactured. Will feeds them pizza for breakfast, that sort of thing. Innocuous and forgettable.
Likewise, Will’s romance with Diane—which, following a bad first date, kicks into gear when the kids’ school is unexpectedly closed and he asks Kat, who’s in his class, to babysit them while he teaches it—is virtually chemistry-free, and devoid of specificity. It’s refreshing that race never so much as gets mentioned, but it’s also weird that neither Kat nor Diane objects, or even comments, when Will turns the events of the film into an autobiographical comic in which the Diane character is depicted as white. (Maybe the comics, credited to Gray Williams, were drawn before Hall was cast?) Even the content of Will’s lectures is shamelessly cribbed from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which gets visually name-checked in the opening-credits artwork. For a movie drawn from real life, this feels oddly synthetic.