With a little tweaking People, Places, Things could easily pass as the third Noah Baumbach black comedy of the year (following Mistress America & While We’re Young). The film’s mix of understated indie quirk with pitch-black dialogue like “Happiness is not a sustainable condition,” & “I’m fine. I’m just having a bad life. It’ll be over eventually,” fits right in with the typical Bambauchian formula. This doesn’t feel like a direct, intentional nod to the director’s work, however. It’s rather a side-effect of attempting to adopt the often dark humor & lightheartedly sullen tone of modern art comics & graphic novels. Featuring original artwork from comic book artist Gray Williams, People, Places, Things uses the comic book medium as a form of inner monologue to tell the story of the protagonist’s emotional state as his external, romantic life crumbles at his feet. Fans of Fantagraphics-leaning artists like Daniel Clowes & Charles Burns will probably get a lot of satisfaction from that storytelling device. The rest of the film’s entertainment value is largely dependent upon your interest in dark humor, romantic comedy, and Flight of the Conchords vet Jemaine Clement.
Clement plays the film’s protagonist, Will Henry, a super-bummed graphic novelist/art school professor having a toned-down sort of mid-life crisis. After catching his longtime girlfriend cheating during their twin daughters’ 5th birthday party, he spends a full year in a state of depression-laden stasis before reluctantly re-entering the dating game. After a tense first date with a surprisingly age-appropriate literary professor that had the two passionately arguing over the supposed merits of graphic novels as a legitimate form of literature, he finds himself torn between a new love interest who finds him snobbish & the leftover fragments of his love for the mother of his children. It’s a classic tale of arrested emotional development. Honestly, because Henry is in such a reflective state of depression & self-loathing, he comes across as the only properly-developed character in the film. As a result, none of People, Places, Things’ romantic detangling hits quite as hard as Clement’s portrayal of a broken man, which works perfectly in tandem with Gray William’s sullen comic book art. There’s obviously a great deal of humor in Clement’s performance, especially in the way he interacts with his daughters (for instance, on their 6th birthday he tells them, “It feels like just yesterday you were 5,”) & in the way he allows his lectures to devolve into topics like “Why Does Life Suck So Hard?”. Humor comes naturally for Clement, though, so it’s much more of a treat to see him showing off his dramatic chops here. The movie asks him to carry a hefty load of emotional weight & he seems to pull it off effortlessly.
As enjoyable as People, Places, Things is as an understated black comedy, it doesn’t break the mold in any significant way. It’s not even the best dark comedy about a comic book artist in a state of emotional crisis to be released this year. That distinction belongs to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. As with all of Jemaine Clement’s work, though, it is an exceedingly charming film in a way that feels natural & unforced. The movie even works in some Understanding Comics-type lectures on basic comic book concepts like the function of “the gap between the panels” without compromising its tone. I also liked that as fervently as the movie defends comics as an artform, it doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at the fine art of improv comedy in a dismissive way. Besides Clement’s exceptional performance as the lead, the best trick People, Places, Things pulls off is in exploring comic books as a form of storytelling while simultaneously adapting its techniques to the medium of film. It works surprisingly well & feels remarkably genuine, which is an important attribute for this Bambauchian sort of depressive indie comedy quirk. It’s not something you need to rush out to see, but it is currently, conveniently streaming on Netflix for whenever you’re in the mood for what it’s laying down.