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People Places Things

D: Jim Strouse / 87m

Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Michael Chernus

Will Henry (Clement) is a graphic novelist and teacher of same who, on the day of his twin girls’ fifth birthday, discovers that his wife, Charlie (Allynne), is having an affair. Charlie feels unfulfilled and wants a change to her life, but she appears confused as to exactly what she wants. Nevertheless she and Will split up and she takes their children with her. Fast forward a year and several things happen within the space of a few days: the twins celebrate their sixth birthday, Charlie announces she’s pregnant and getting married to her lover, Gary (Chernus), and one of his students, Kat (Williams), invites Will home to meet her mother, Diane (Hall).

Through all this, Will moves like a man in a bad dream, baffled by most of what’s happening around him, and unable to gain any traction. His meeting with Diane is undermined by her telling him she’s already seeing someone. He does get Charlie to agree to his having the twins more often, but this brings with it further problems. They converge one morning when their school is closed unexpectedly and the only place he can find to leave them while he teaches is at Kat’s. When Will goes to collect them, it’s late, Diane is there, and the kids are asleep. Diane refuses to let him wake them and take them home, so he stays the night, and their relationship starts to become more serious.

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Matters are further complicated when Charlie voices doubts about marrying Gary and she and Will kiss. Believing that Charlie wants to try again, Will reluctantly informs Diane that he can’t see her anymore. To his surprise, Charlie denies any confusion on her part and maintains that she’s marrying Gary. Will retreats to his apartment, but Kat intrudes on his despair, and using some artwork he’s shown her, gets him to think about what he really wants, and what he needs to do next.

If you only see one romantic comedy about a graphic artist having to decide which one of two women he should be involved with, then make sure its People Places Things. It’s a wonderfully smart, sharply scripted movie – by the director – and packs in more laughs than the likes of Vacation (2015) or Get Hard (2015) combined. And though they might not be huge belly laughs, they’re the kind that leave a residual smile on the viewer’s face long after the scene they’re in has ended. The script makes a virtue of awkward dialogue, making Will sound prickly and insulting without thinking, responding to some comments with such disdain that you can’t believe he doesn’t get slapped more often than the one time in the movie when he does.

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But it’s likely that Strouse’s acid-tinged script wouldn’t have been as effective if it weren’t for the casting of Clement as Will. His deadpan, slightly nasal delivery of his lines, along with several variations of open-mouthed dismay, makes Will a hugely enjoyable character to spend time with, as he stumbles his way through the various ups and downs of being a part-time father and apparent ex-husband (apparent because the script never makes it clear that he and Charlie have actually divorced). You can’t help but feel sorry for Will as he does his best to work out why everyone around him is doing their best to confuse him. (For fans of the UK TV show The IT Crowd, Clement’s performance may be a little off-putting as it’s very reminiscent of Richard Ayoade’s character, Maurice; he even wears trousers that are too short at one point.)

Strouse also scores strongly by making Charlie as confused as Will. Their scenes together are wonderfully plaintive, as each tries to state their own case for being miserable and wanting to be happy. Allynne makes Charlie’s struggle for happiness something to admire, and when she starts to have doubts about marrying Gary, the character’s sense of bewilderment is so beautifully played that you can’t help but feel sorry for her – even if it does screw things up for Will and Diane. As Diane, Hall is more direct and more certain about what she wants, and she challenges Will in ways that Charlie never did during their marriage. There’s a meeting of minds that Strouse makes deliberately fractious at first, and their dinner together is a mini-masterclass in how two people can be attracted to each other and still take umbrage at nearly everything each other says.

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With the cast having a field day with the script, Strouse is free to take his somewhat lightweight plotting – and that’s not a negative, by any means – and add some depth to the movie by relating Will’s plight to the way in which graphic novels are constructed, and how they can be more expressive in a single panel than people can be their whole lives. This allows us to see Will for the implacably lonely man that he is, and gives us a better insight into why he struggles to understand Charlie’s motivaions, and often his own. Strouse also makes the point about how so much can happen in the space between panels and how this is similar to the way in which so much in our own lives happens without us even realising it.

Strouse also uses tight close ups to focus our attention on the emotions of a scene, and with DoP Chris Teague he keeps the action weighted in the ordinary and mundane, with only the various graphic realisations offering any visual relief. These images are provided by the artist Gray Williams and are witty, incisive and clever, and also mirror Will’s feelings throughout. They add strong support to the sincerity of Strouse’s script and are amusing all by themselves. And there’s a distinctive and well-chosen soundtrack that also adds to the simplicity of Strouse’s tale.

Rating: 9/10 – completely charming and free from all the “cuteness” of many recent romantic comedies, People Places Things has enough heart and quirky humour for a dozen similar movies; deceptively ambitious and a pleasure to watch, Strouse’s third feature as a director – after Grace Is Gone (2007) and The Winning Season (2009) – is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and easily one of the best movies of 2015.