It would be a treat to watch Jemaine Clement read the phone book. Fortunately, “People, Places, Things,” in which he stars as a single dad, is much more charming and delightful than that. From writer-director Jim Strouse, ‘People’ allows Clement to at once be his distinctive self while also offering an opportunity for the “Flight of the Conchords” star to demonstrate his winning leading man abilities. With a dry and witty tone, it’s an amicable and appealing piece on love, both the romantic and family kind, and the ways in which it can change, evolve, and grow.
At the 5th birthday party for their twin girls, Will (Clement) discovers his longtime girlfriend/baby mama, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), in a compromising situation with a friend of theirs, Gary (Michael Chernus). She declares she wants out, and soon he is out, living in a tiny rathole apartment in Queens, teaching the graphic novel at the School of Visual Arts (Strouse is also a cartoonist and teaches there).
Clement has a wonderful dynamic with most everyone he meets on screen in “People, Places, Things,” but it’s such fun to watch him interact with the too-cute twins, Cleo and Collette, played by Gia and Aundrea Gadsby, who are precociously funny and talented. He’s wants more time with them, but things are also quite awkward between him, Charlie and Gary. Allynne has the really difficult task of playing Charlie, a selfish shrew of a woman, who is almost a parody in her unwillingness to compromise or take responsibility. Chernus doesn’t get much screen time, but his strategy of being way too agreeable with Will, especially when Will confronts him, is hilarious.
Will is set up on a quasi date by one of his students, Kat (the awesome Jessica Williams of “The Daily Show”), with her mom, Columbia lit professor Diane (Regina Hall). Hall and Clement have a wonderful chemistry together, and Hall, playing in a different mode from her previous performances, is pitch perfect as the slightly neurotic, opinionated, and no bullshit Diane. The pair are both resistant to the idea of dating each other for various reasons, though the sparks clearly fly between them and are impossible to deny. Despite this connection, their baggage keeps getting in the way of what could be something great.
Just a sidebar to say kudos to the color blind casting of Hall and Williams — there’s nothing in the script that mentions race, and the roles could have been played by anyone. That Strouse cast two women of color should definitely be lauded, and it would be nice to see more indies do this. It’s clearly not just for representation quota too: Clement plays off both performers so well — his subtle deadpan delivery bounces off Williams’ sassy forthrightness, as well as the sweet and funny dynamic he shares with Hall. Hall and Williams are a blast to watch, a breath of fresh air, and there definitely should have been more of them in the film.
Strouse uses Will’s graphic novel in progress in ingenious ways to reveal the inner struggle that he’s going through — fearful at losing his relationship with his girls, frustrated with Charlie’s unpredictable nature, and really just lonely and searching for companionship. The illustrations are a lovely device and fit into the narrative diegetically, a meta little story within the story.
A sweet NYC love story that proves love can be found in many different kinds of relationships, “People, Places, Things” is a fine showcase for Jemaine Clement as a lead dramatic actor. There really needs to be more of him in more things, honestly. The rest of the cast is aces as well, and the film is a funny rumination on fatherhood, marriage, and how relationships fall together and fall apart. “People, Places, Things” is a total charmer. [B+]