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