People, Places, Things is a twee, matured-hipster 2000s version of the classic hapless dad movie from the 90s with a criminally underused cast of comics. Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) is woe-befallen graphic novelist cum professor whose partner leaves him for an off-Broadway monologuist, a career that out-Brooklyn’s Clement’s own. He struggles to cope, co-parent his adorable twins, and ease himself back into dating.
Awkwardness, situational humor and sardonicism are Clement’s forte, and he uses them to a great degree in the film. His strengths haven’t really evolved since his days on Flight of the Conchords, and his character is basically Jemaine 10 years later; I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I am saying that he is the Michael Cera of New Zealand.
During his twins’ sixth birthday party, Will discovers his partner Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) en flagrante with Gary (Micheal Churnus, Piper Chapman’s hilarious brother in OINTB). Will’s outrage quickly gives way to confusion, then resignation. They make some awkward small talk, there are some jokes about nudity, and then the film flashes forward a year to find Will sadly bumbling through teaching his classes at the local arts school and stoically looking after his daughters as Charlie moves on with Gary.
The amazing Jessica Williams plays his student Kat, who tries to rescue her pathetic professor by setting him up with her mom Diane (Regina Hall), another professor (at Columbia) who – let’s face it – is too good for him, but what the hey? Hollywood movie magic. Both Williams and Hall are strong comic actors whose parts in the film are woefully underdeveloped; their scenes are brief and most of their attempts to get a laugh are in riffing scenes done with Clement where he shines, but where they come off as bland or forced.
I would’ve loved to have seen a more nuanced interaction between Diane and Kat, but their relationship unfolds mainly through conversations each has separately with Will and through panels of illustrations that the film uses periodically to fill plot gaps (which was cute but kind of a cop-out); we never get to see any extended scenes with the two sharp actresses, which is truly a missed opportunity.
The love scenes with Will and both his ex Charlie and Diane were p a i n f u l. Each time I watched them plant lips on each other it registered as the most uncomfortable kiss I’d ever seen, until the following kiss claimed the title. In one post-coital scene, Will displays touching sincerity while telling Diane how Charlie and he went from an ‘is’ to a ‘was’. The moment was one of the few when I sympathized with him, and was a highlight of the film. This could have been coupled with Diane’s own deconstruction of her past failed relationship; instead the moment is lost as she brushes her ex off as an asshole and awkwardly cuddles Will.
Still, it was thrilling to see a movie with an international and interracial cast that treated the characters as complex people rather than reducing them to tired tropes; there was never any tension about Diane and Will being different colors. It was awesome to see Diane and Kat as simply an upper middle class Black family without any associations to The Struggle or Black single motherhood.
There were light sprinkles of feminism in the movie, which was awesome. Diane takes Will to task for automatically turning to his female student to babysit instead of the men in his class. Charlie holds him accountable for the unequal distribution of work in raising their kids, and her frustration at having to pull the weight while her dreams took back burner to Will’s career; Will responds with a lackluster excuse, basically saying ‘I was comfortable letting you take the lead.’
Will’s scenes with his cello playing, foul-mouthed daughters were ace and the most believable parts of the film. He naturally slides into fun dad mode with sweetness and levity that was fun to watch as they flew kites, camped, and colored together. Though his attempts to play confusion and sadness often felt shallow, he reached Ms. Doubtfire like levels when showing love for his kids. Their chemistry was strong and the kids were cute!
Will is not an interesting enough character to carry a whole movie; the film could have been so much richer if they’d allowed their supporting cast to flex their comedic muscles, and if they’d given us more Diane. People is not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, but it is an altogether forgettable film.