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D: Dustin Guy Defa / 84m

Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Mchaela Watkins, Olivia Luccardi, Ben Rosenfield, Buddy Duress

Ensemble movies have to play things very carefully. There are so many boxes to tick – quirky but relatable characters, humorous/dramatic scenarios as required, switching between them if necessary, maybe connecting each in an organic way, creating an interesting environment – all these things and more have to be taken into consideration before the cameras even start rolling. Pity the poor writer/director who takes on such a project and isn’t fully prepared from the word Go. And pity the poor viewer who settles down to watch such a project with a great deal of anticipation. Because not only do ensemble movies have to play things very carefully, they also have to be credible.

Person to Person is an ensemble movie where several of the tick boxes mentioned above remain resolutely unticked from start to finish. Partly because whatever writer/director Dustin Guy Defa’s message is, it’s obscured by the bland characters on display, the lack of any real humour or drama (even though a potential murder occupies the attention of two of the characters), and certain scenes that are so leadenly paced that ennui is likely to seep in before they come to an end. This is a movie to watch with one eye open, while the other takes a well-earned rest. It’s sluggish, gives us dramatic scenarios that don’t ring true, and introduces us to a slew of self-absorbed malcontents and socially awkward worriers.

First up is Bene (Coopersmith), a middle-aged jazz fan and collector who has his sights set on buying a rare red vinyl LP by Charlie Parker. At the same time, Bene’s best friend, Ray (Sample III), is staying with him after breaking up with his girlfriend, Janet, but he just sits on the sofa doing nothing. Bene encourages him to get up and go out, even if it’s just around the block. Meanwhile, there’s Wendy (Gevinson), a waif-like teen with a waspish, anti-everything stance that hides a desperate need to be liked, and more importantly, loved (but of course she doesn’t know how to commit to anyone or trust them). She spends time with her best friend, Melanie (Luccardi), but Melanie is more interested in talking about her boyfriend than listening to Wendy’s tirades about life, love and relationships. And then there’s newbie journalist Claire (Jacobson), working her first day and teamed up with her editor, Phil (Cera), to report on a potential murder. She’s nervous and unsure if this is the right job for her, while he’s doing his best to impress her into sleeping with him. The police investigation leads them to a watch repairer called Jimmy (Hall), and the victim’s wife (Watkins). And while all this is happening, Ray leaves Bene’s apartment and attempts to make things right between himself and Janet, but soon finds that he’s being tracked down by her brother, Buster (Whitlock Jr), who wants to break both his legs (in a particularly misguided moment, Ray uploaded naked pictures of Janet onto the Internet).

These are the stories that Defa has assembled for Person to Person, and though they all prove superficially engaging, by the time the movie struggles over the finishing line by having Phil thump his desk in self-pity and frustration, Bene attend a party with his girlfriend, Claire go home to her cat, Wendy standing alone on a sidewalk, Ray breaking down in front of Janet, and everyone else left in limbo, the only true resolution the movie offers is connected to the possible murder. It’s a narrative decision that feels awkward when you think about it, and feels even more awkward when you see it. Defa wants to show his audience the various problems that disparate people can face every day in New York (another character that isn’t best served by Defa’s screenplay). But the problem with that lies in the stories he wants to tell. Claire is ostensibly the most sympathetic character, but she’s also the most wishy-washy, apologetic character you’re ever likely to meet in an indie dramedy. Bene, at first, appears quite switched on and self-aware but then he frets about a new shirt he’s bought, and he does it all day long and to anyone who’ll listen.

These quirks (and others) are meant to endear the viewer to the characters, but therein lies another problem: the characters aren’t that likeable or too sympathetic. Watching them go through their day so totally wrapped up in themselves isn’t all that interesting, and Defa has trouble convincing us that we should care about them. They may all be misfits to one degree or another, but that doesn’t auomatically give them a free pass to our understanding and appreciation. Even the cast, which is very talented indeed, can’t elevate the material to any level where the viewer might become more involved or more intrigued or more interested. Only Hall, who’s been around too long to let a character get away from him, makes anything of his role, and he’s appropriately subdued. Elsewhere, the likes of Gevinson and Coopersmith are stuck portraying characters you’d cross the street to avoid, and Cera brings his usual schtick to a role that requires less schlep and more chutzpah (though the sight of Cera pretending to be a metalhead is funny all by itself).

Thankfully, the one good decision Defa has made is to keep it brief. At eighty-four minutes the movie is not a minute too long, but even then there are times when it feels longer, as when Claire has to attempt an interview with just about anyone. These are meant to be comic moments, but they lack the kind of humorous resonance that would instill laughter in an audience, and instead just look painfully awkward, both for the character and the actor or actress. That said, Defa has been fortunate in obtaining the services of DoP Ashley Connor, who gives the movie a polished look that makes it feel bright and airy, while also using close ups to good effect. But all in all, this is a movie that doesn’t even manage to get even halfway to being as good as it could be.

Rating: 4/10 – with too much room for improvement, Person to Person fails to engage and fails to impress, leaving the viewer with little to do but sit back and hope things improve (which they don’t); there’s the germ of a good idea buried somewhere deep inside Defa’s screenplay, but the execution does the material no favours, and the end result is entirely disappointing.