Clement Charms In Kindly "People Places Things"

The talents of New Zealand comedian Jemaine Clement have been well established for the better part of a decade, taking wing with the rise of his comedy-folk duo Flight Of The Conchords, the group’s subsequent HBO show, supporting roles in “Dinner For Schmucks” and “Men In Black 3,” and this year’s sneaky-good “What We Do In The Shadows.” But apart from mediocre 2007 indie “Eagle Vs. Shark,” he’d yet to throw his leading man’s hat into the ring.

“People Places Things” sees that cap soar beautifully towards its target.

Clement’s predilection for center stage is real and actually kind of astounding, pole-vaulting James Strouse’s low-key romantic comedy into something much sturdier. By adding depth to his droll comedic sensibilities, the actor has unearthed a supernatural level of charm that filmmakers the world over should be clamoring to get their mitts on.

Will Henry (Clement) is struggling in all facets of life. He’s treading vocational water as a graphic novelist and teacher while his role as newly single father to two young girls is clearly taking its toll. After his wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne, “In A World…”) leaves him in the film’s opening for a schlub named Gary (Michael Chernus, Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black”), Will is walloped with the realization that he’s become something of a doormat.

“I just want to be alone,” thinks a character from one of his panels. It’s an obvious but potent signpost: “People Places Things” isn’t just a character piece. It’s a case study in being careful what you wish for.

Strouse’s down-to-earth writing style keeps the movie homey while addressing universal themes – a tricky balancing act. And it’s all anchored by a fledgling romance, a chance courtship between Will and Diane (Regina Hall), the mother of one of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams).

Hall is the second ace up Strouse’s sleeve. In repurposing an actress mostly known for her frenzied performances in the “Scary Movie” series, the writer-director finds someone not only capable of bouncing off Clement but confounding audience expectations. It’s an astute bit of casting for a part that could’ve come off as corny or underwritten. Instead, Hall is great in it, making Diane believable and smart and the perfect salve to Will’s sudden mid-life crisis.

The emotional push-pull of the screenplay is best realized in the scenes between Will and his daughters, all of which present parenthood in its most basic form. Getting ready for school. Camping trips. Impromptu cello practice. No need to Google it, it’s crystal clear that Strouse is a parent (Clement, too) through the simplicity of these sequences and the way Will’s custody issues are presented.

Less effective is Will’s relationship to his job – the graphic novelist angle is mostly unexplored – making for some clunky detours that only serve to bring other players into the story. But the character’s art serves as a nice way to underline Strouse’s themes. How having children irreparably changes the chemistry of a relationship. How single life is different for men and women. What a fickle monster timing can be.

More than once the movie hints at a wonderful question – is Will’s art a reflection of him or is he a reflection of his art? It’s a lovely query to throw at audiences, even if it largely goes unanswered. But the intentions are there, as is a terrific leading performance, and some blissfully tender moments. If “People Places Things” doesn’t quite live up to its lofty, humanistic aspirations, it’s not for a lack of trying.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 14, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: The Film Arcade
Director: James Strouse
Screenwriter: James Strouse
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief nudity)