‘People Places Things’
Director: James C. Strouse
Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The indie “People Places Things” concerns divorce and heartbreak, kids forced to split time between parental units and vocational angst. It features a casually presented interracial romance. More than that, it knows that love doesn’t always work out and that life, in adulthood, turns into a series of errands and responsibilities that interrupt if not derail dreams. It should be more than your prototypical Sundance movie. And yet that’s exactly what it is — a film designed by computer, from the quirky-funny tone, the quirky-silly guitar-and-piano score and the needlessly ambiguous final shot that finds “eh, this’ll do”-level transcendence in crushing banality. Every now and then it tries to break free, but it keeps letting itself get sucked back in.

At least one of its cliches can at least be an enjoyable one, and in this case it is: watching a performer known for comedy do (light) drama. Jemaine Clement ever so gently nudges his Flight of the Conchords deadpan shtick into the slightly more recognizably human Will, who catches his wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), mid-cheat while preparing one of their two daughter’s birthday party. It takes a year for him to even consider another relationship, and he only agrees reluctantly to have dinner with Diane (Regina Hall), a grouchy fellow professor and mother of a student (Jessica Williams) taking his graphic novel class at SVA. 

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Clement’s remote style — which is not always his style, as witness his larger-than-life turns in “Gentlemen Broncos” and “Dinner with Schmucks” — works well for someone who has not only disappeared inside himself, but who is subtly, sometimes, selfish or at least oblivious. There are hints that he was ignoring his spouse, and his hesitation to date Diane is borne out of more than mere nervousness. There’s also a fantastic performance from Regina Hall, whose apparent snobbery and curtness masks the kind of hurt only felt by those who find themselves heading into an older age. When she melts, she melts. (Williams is less utilized, but every scene takes advantage of her gift for a strange kind of patient exasperation.)

There is a wise, smart, maybe even subversive movie in here, but filmmaker James C. Strouse (“Lonesome Jim,” “Grace is Gone”) keeps retreating to safer territory. His film has a sense of humor, and at its best the humor comes directly from pain. But other times it feels forced. In the opening scene Will scolds Charlie’s afairee, the over-apologetic — and therefore, for Will, annoyingly un-hate-able, which is a nice touch — Gary (Michael Chernus), for not presently wearing a shirt. So Charlie hands him the one she was wearing. The shirt-swap is a too cute moment — an attempt to undercut a common breakup movie scene with comedy that heads deep into nether-regions of quirk and far away from the line of mildly heightened reality that is typically “People Places Thing”’s bag. 

There are messy emotions, and at least one plot thread resolves itself in a wholly unexpected, and more downer-realistic, fashion. Bits like that make it all the more frustrating to watch “People Places Things” trod upon all the familiar beats anyway. It becomes as generic as its title, flattening its numerous creases en route to becoming a tidy small fry that still, in 2015, wins big at Sundance and places like it. It isn’t afraid to go to ugly places, but soon as it’s there it runs away, makes an easy joke or offers false comfort, as though it was always telling us not to worry, it’s only an indie.

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