Film re­views David Strat­ton on Ever­est; Stephen Romei on Peo­ple Places Things

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Stephen Romei

What hap­pens when you love the most im­por­tant parts of your life — your spouse, your chil­dren — but are dis­sat­is­fied with your life as you live it day to day, month to month, year to year? That’s the burn­ing ember of a ques­tion that ig­nites the ac­tion of Peo­ple Places Things. Sure, it’s a bit of a self-cen­tred ques­tion at a time when the world around us is full of hor­ror, but that doesn’t in­val­i­date it.

This ro­man­tic com­edy-drama from Amer­i­can film­maker James C. Strouse is un­con­ven­tional — and that’s why it’s so in­ter­est­ing. At times it feels awk­wardly real. This has a lot to do with an un­con­ven­tional lead per­for­mance by New Zealand mu­si­cian and ac­tor Je­maine Cle­ment, best known as one half of the mu­si­cal com­edy act Flight of the Con­chords (who made an epony­mous se­ries for Amer­i­can ca­ble net­work HBO be­tween 2007 and 2009).

Will Henry (Cle­ment) is a 40-year-old graphic nov­el­ist who makes ends meet by teach­ing a col­lege course in this un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated literary genre. He’s hand­some in a scruffy, sad sack, Jonathan Franzen sort of way. “Hap­pi­ness is not a sus­tain­able con­di­tion,’’ he tells his wife Char­lie (Stephanie Al­lynne) early on.

With an at­ti­tude like that who could blame Char­lie for seek­ing com­fort in the arms of the near­est cheer­ful off-Broad­way mo­nolo­gist (a de­cid­edly Se­in­feld- ian choice of oc­cu­pa­tion for the se­ducer). It is pre­cisely in these beefy arms that Will finds her amid the chaos of a fifth birth­day party for their twins Clio and Col­lette.

Hav­ing caught his wife and her lover Gary (Michael Ch­er­nus, Piper’s brother in Or­ange is the New Black) more or less in the act, Will feels he should cause a scene, which leads to the most in­ef­fec­tual fight scene since Hugh Grant and Colin Firth tus­sled in Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary.

Later, Will and Char­lie have the con­ver­sa­tion I al­luded to at the out­set. “I love you,’’ she tells him. “The prob­lem is I don’t love my life.’’ There’s a sug­ges­tion she has put ca­reer am­bi­tions on hold to raise the chil­dren and sup­port his art, which has stalled.

They are all civilised peo­ple, so fast for­ward 12 months and Char­lie is still in the mar­i­tal Brook­lyn brown­stone, usu­ally with Gary, and Will has moved into a one-bed­room flat in Queens. They share cus­tody of the girls, and Will’s grow­ing re­la­tion­ship with them is full of charm. Played by sib­lings Aun­drea and Gia Gadsby, the twins are funny and pre­co­cious, but not so much as to be un­be­liev­able.

There’s a po­ten­tial love in­ter­est in Diane (Regina Hall), the mother of one of Will’s stu­dents, Kat ( Daily Show reg­u­lar Jes­sica Wil­liams, who is a scene stealer). There’s a funny-sad mo­ment where Will thinks Kat is ask­ing him out for her­self, not her mother. Her re­ac­tion: “That is so gross! You’re so old.’’ Diane is a teacher of se­ri­ous literature, at Columbia Univer­sity no less, which adds a tense hu­mour to the first date. But, on the pos­i­tive side, we are told, she has seen the Hob­bit films. That Cle­ment’s char­ac­ter is a New Zealan­der adds an un­usual di­men­sion, though it’s not over­worked. We are used to see­ing Aus­tralians in Amer­i­can films — we are ev­ery­where — but Ki­wis not so much.

Will is a slightly odd man, not in­stantly lik­able, full of un­cer­tainty — and this, too, I found con­vinc­ing and re­fresh­ing. Cle­ment brings a sub­tle sense of com­edy to pro­ceed­ings, such as when he waits for Char­lie in a trendy cafe, sit­ting at a too-small ta­ble typ­i­cal of such es­tab­lish­ments, sand­wiched be­tween two breast­feed­ing moth­ers. Char­lie, on the other hand, veers a lit­tle too far to­wards car­i­ca­ture shrewish­ness, her sense of un­ful­fil­ment in­ad­e­quately ex­plained, and this is dis­ap­point­ing.

I sup­pose the main ques­tion of this film is whether Will and Char­lie, who say they still love each other, will find a way to rec­on­cile, not least for the sake of their daugh­ters. I’ll leave that to you to find out, but I will say I found the end­ing very sat­is­fy­ing be­cause it felt hon­est: noth­ing is cer­tain, but hope per­sists.

Writer-di­rec­tor Rouse (who also does the graphic art we see as Will’s) made his de­but with the af­fect­ing 2007 drama Grace is Gone, in which John Cu­sack is a fa­ther who strug­gles to tell his two young daugh­ters that their soldier mother has been killed in Iraq. He next made the high school bas­ket­ball com­edy The Win­ning Sea­son (2009). This en­gag­ing, good-hearted third film is emo­tion­ally closer to his first, and while it stum­bles at times it’s never less than thought­ful.

I also hope other film­mak­ers take no­tice of Cle­ment, as on the ba­sis of this slow-build, un­der­stated but pow­er­ful per­for­mance, I’d like to see more of him.

Je­maine Cle­ment as Will in re­la­tion­ship drama Peo­ple Places Things, with twin daugh­ters played by Aun­drea and Gia Gadsby

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