People Places Things introduces a promising romantic pentagon, only to let it float away unfulfilled into studiously benign coming-of-age clouds. Will (Jemaine Clement) is the prototypical artist stuck in his own head, teaching graphic arts and gradually completing a new comic book while his wealthy wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), has an affair with some sort of “off-Broadway monologist,” Gary (Michael Chernus). Will catches Charlie and Gary having sex, and the former pair dissolves to make way for the new union. Flash-forward a year and Charlie and Gary are contemplating marriage, while Will has resigned himself to living in Astoria, seeing his young children, Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby), only on the weekends, acting as the cool dad to Charlie’s increasingly stressed and distracted mom. Meanwhile, Will embarks on a new casual thing with Diane (Regina Hall), the beautiful mother of one his most gifted students, Kat (Jessica Williams).
Writer-director James C. Strouse sets all of these threads up with promising, unfussy economy, and he allows the audience to grasp certain details for themselves without unduly highlighting certain resonances, such as Charlie’s obvious penchant for starving artists who somehow represent, for her, an honorable contrast against the life of unchallenged leisure that’s apparently available to her financially. (This subtext is shrewdly accentuated in one of the best scenes, when Charlie defensively asserts to Will all the daily activities she plans for Clio and Colette since separating from him.) As a screenwriter, Strouse has grown into a more confident coraller of voices since his last film, Grace Is Gone; every female character, in particular, is allowed to exist on their own unique wavelength, which occasionally results in evocative collisions. When Will and Diane have their first, awkward date, they speak in the real timbre of intelligent, self-consciously talented people who’ve been romantically burned several times, landing a few terrifically strange one-liners that elaborate knowingly on the nature of their respective deliverers. As a director, Strouse is pivotally aware of faces, especially Diane’s, which often simultaneously transmits attraction to Will as well as distrust of said attraction.
Isolated on their own terms, most of the scenes in People Places Things “work,” and the cast is uniformly charming, but nothing’s allowed to add up to anything. Strouse builds a narrative of nesting frictions only to let it collapse like a house of cards. Tensions evaporate impersonally by demand of the plot’s economy. Will and Charlie’s differing views of raising Clio and Colette are established as a potentially significant problem for the family, for instance, only to be bluntly dropped when Strouse grows bored with it. Will and Diane encounter a bump when the former finds himself once again attracted to Charlie, but this is resolved in the dullest and most conceivably polite fashion. And so on. A potentially striking, melancholic suggestion—that these people are too worn out by disappointment to be properly roused by heartbreak and complication—appears to be inadvertent. Ultimately, People Places Things is a fantasy of everyone always being nice, pleasant, and right, of differing points of view as being easily, instantly reconcilable. It’s an appealing daydream that grows boring, and even a little smug.