Review: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall lift sitcom-y ‘People, Places, Things’

PARK CITY. Jim Strouse's “People, Places, Things” plays like an 86 minute pilot for an HBO comedy series and even in this age of “TV and Movies Have Achieved Parity,” I doubt that's what anybody wants to hear. But if you know me, you know I mean it largely as a compliment. 

And what does that mean?

Well, not too much happens in “People, Places, Things.” It's a low-incident narrative that's supposed to be about emotional truth mixed with humor, but a lot of the comedic beats are being played rather broadly.  It feels as if the basic plot elements and, particularly, characters are in place at the end of the film for an ongoing storyline that might be amusing. Give me this cast and some of these characters on a weekly basis for 10 or 13 half-hour episodes per season and I could grow to really like them.

And speaking of growth, if you do a few episodes of a TV comedy and you don't quite nail the tone, but you show potential, generous critics such as myself will write, “Well, sometimes it takes comedies a while to find themselves” and then you get the benefit of the doubt. If you do an 86 minute feature comedy that doesn't quite nail the tone, but shows potential, the most generous critics such as myself will write is, “Well, some of it works, but it really could have used a bit more fleshing out so that I was left with more in the end.”

Why wouldn't everybody want to just make TV? Show potential. Get the opportunity to develop your characters. Make sure that you aren't just relying on cuteness and comic timing, because those can't always yield depth immediately.

“People, Places, Things” has cuteness and comic timing in abundance, but if we assume that Strouse isn't really going to turn around and sell this to HBO, it doesn't amount to much.

More after the break…

On his daughters' fifth birthday, graphic novelist Will (Jemaine Clement) finds his girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) canoodling with a husky monologist (Michael Chernus). She's not happy, she tells him. Happiness isn't a sustainable condition, he tells her.

One year later, Will is alone and he isn't seeing his daughters (Gia and Aundrea Gadsby) nearly as much as he'd like to. He wants his girls to be a bigger part of his life, but as Charlie reminds him, Will is more of the “good-time dad” and not so effective at setting limits and imposing structure, which makes sense since his life is only structured by the weekly class at the School of Visual Arts. [Will's original artwork comes courtesy of Gray Williams and is accompanied by reasonably good analysis of the comic form, relatively speaking.]

One of the students in that class is the talented Kat (Jessica Williams), who senses Will's sadness and tries to set him up with her lonely mother Diane (Regina Hall). But is Will ready for a new relationship? Is Diane?

With its in-over-his-head single dad with two towheaded daughters in New York City conceit, “People, Places, Things” — This is an awful title, by the way — plays like a watered-down version of “Louie.” Heck, the daughters even play stringed instruments.

Working in far peppier mode than on his Sundance success “Grace Is Gone,” Strouse makes Will mostly a comedic creation, which is good because Clement is in that genre-transition mode where the different between going for laughs and trying to be serious is just turning the energy level way down. Working with his natural Kiwi accent, Clement's timing is, of course, impeccable. There are things he can say — “Yeah, I'm a sassy little hobbit,” for example — that are simply funnier when Clement says them than they would be tripping off of anybody else's tongue. Clement is the reason that Will is tolerable, because if you look at the character's on-the-page actions, he's not an especially well-developed man-child.

Without Clement, you'd certainly never think that Will was worthy of the affections of Hall's smart, sexy, funny Diane. Because Hollywood is Hollywood, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how rarely Regina Hall is given opportunities like this but she, like her “Think Like a Man” co-star Gabrielle Union, has basically never been given opportunities to play racially unspecified rom-com female leads. Seeing her here, finally getting that opportunity at 44, I'm inclined to think that's a bit of a crime. Even with Clement making the most of his punchlines, it still takes a willing suspension of disbelief to accept that Diane couldn't do better.

“Daily Show” veteran Jessica Williams and Stephanie Allynne also have good line-readings that pump up some soft comic moments, with Allynne pulling off a rare antic-but-attractive topless scene that will presumably guarantee “People, Places, Things” an R-rating. [Allynne had a good Sundance with this and charming work as herself in “Tig.”]

Actually, the “People, Places, Things” cast is full of actors making the most of limited screentime including Paul Castro Jr. and Celia Au as other students in Will's class, “Manhattan” co-star Chernus and even the Gadsby twins, who have good chemistry with Clement and go above-and-beyond mere moppet cuteness.

It's exactly the sort of cast that makes you wish you could tune in next week to see which actors get to shine in the B-story and C-story. Instead, the story peters out in a lackluster climax, accompanied by the rom-commiest rom-com score ever, courtesy of Mark Orton.

I'm assuming that “People, Places, Things” was stuck with its lame-o title because the title of the graphic novel that Jessica Williams' character creates would have been, while funnier, too edgy (and profane). And “People, Places, Things” has almost no edge at all. What is has is Clement, Allynne, Williams and, especially Hall. Honestly, I came away from this movie with the HBO series joke and with a desire to make all of Hollywood's casting directors watch Regina Hall and feel just a tiny bit of shame for two decades of underuse.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Digging For Fire”
“Prophet's Prey”
“The Wolfpack”
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”