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People Places Things - review

Aug 28, 2015 Film & TV

People Places Things. Director James C. Strouse

See if you can come up with a blander title than People Places Things. I bet you can’t. It’s so perfectly unmemorable it amounts to a cloak of invisibility, and in a perverse way this is exactly what this film needs. A midlife-crisis comedy about a man who’s just discovered that the marriage he’s vaguely bored with is in fact over, it seems to beg for such descriptors as “modest”, “mild”, “unassuming” and, the killing blow, “quirky”.

The secret lurking beneath these quite accurate adjectives and the title’s interest-deadening string of nouns is that the film is sweet-souled, clever and really rather good. Writer-director James C. Strouse has achieved something curious and valuable here: a small, ordinary story whose virtues are precisely those of the small and the ordinary. Don’t mistake this for faint praise.

Among the many improbable things Strouse gets right is the casting of Jemaine Clement as Kiwi graphic novelist Will Henry, adrift in the fast currents of New York and equally adrift in his own life. Strouse originally imagined Will as a midwesterner, but realised, on meeting Clement, that he was perfect for the part, and that his passable-enough American accent would not be needed: passive-aggressive New Zealand mildness would provide exactly the right contrast with New York’s kill-or-be-killed ethos.

Will, in other words, is a guy we all know. He goes with the flow, he’s ineffectually nice, but just a little under the surface he’s cocksure and capable of enormous selfishness. He’s married to Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), a New York native with the reciprocal qualities of driving pragmatism and deep-seated insecurity, and the film opens with a charming cartoon montage, wordlessly and efficiently showing us how this marriage has slowly reached the point of implosion.

Those cartoons show us something else as well: Strouse has not made Will a graphic novelist in the usual way comedy characters are made writers, artists, musicians (“it sounds good and we’re never going to see him at work anyway”). Will’s drawing, the classes he teaches, and his inability to earn enough to live well in New York once his marriage ends are all integral to the story.

Likewise, the way the marriage ends, the way he and Charlie behave afterwards, and the consequences for their two daughters all feel specific and real. This is rare in relationship comedy. In likeable, low-key, funny relationship comedy, it’s even rarer.

In cinemas nationwide from 10 September. 


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