Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Regina Hall is just an awesome actress. She’s naturally funny and can successfully throw away a line others would hammer home. She’s a stunner who never downplays her age or intelligence, and she’s emotionally open with other actors. Basically, I just want to say there should be more Regina Hall on screen right now, and I’m not talking about her WAY too short role in Vacation this year, although she did get the biggest laughs. Fortunately, although she has a relatively small but vital supporting role in Jim Strouse’s People Places Things, it’s an excellent showcase for her and brightens up what is sometimes too mellow a movie.
Jim Strouse loves his sad-sack male heroes. He wrote the very likable Lomesome Jim and wrote and directed the family-friendly Grace Is Gone and The Winning Season, both focusing on single fathers. People Places Things focuses on yet another dad, Will (Jemaine Clement), a cartoonist who teaches at a college, and raises his six-year-old twin daughters (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) when they aren’t with their mother, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne). Charlie left Will to live with monologist Gary (Orange Is the New Black’s Michael Chernus), whom she now plans to marry. At this same time, his student, Kat (The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams), sets him up with her mother, Regina Hall’s Diane.
It’s a small, intimate movie that’s genuinely sweet and pleasant all around—with a few missteps. Will’s big action in the film is to simply find the ability to “move on” from Charlie, and that can be the stuff of great romantic comedies. One of my favorite movies is Crossing Delancey, in which a character makes a similar journey that Will goes on: to take the first step. But Charlie is really too unlikable.
Comic Stephanie Allynne is good in the role and clearly has screen presence, but she’s so mean and cruel to Will, almost until the very end, that it’s really hard not to question Will’s inability to let her go. We had another film this year about a similar topic of single fatherhood, Goodbye to All That, and that one managed not to treat the woman who left the relationship as cruelly as this one. It isn’t even that it’s bad to treat that character like that; it simply undermines the character of Will, as if the filmmakers wanted to make sure we knew he is the victim in this break-up. And while Charlie is finally softened, she’s never redeemed the way Gary is at the end, in probably the funniest scene between Clement and Chernus.
And Will isn’t the greatest guy ever either, although they could have showed rather than tell us of a few more of his flaws. They dance around his introverted nature and reveal that he suffered from depression when the girls were very young, putting pressure on Charlie, but all this happens off screen. He also lacks backbone, but the movie occasionally takes the position that his worst flaw is “he’s just too nice a guy” as if playing it safe.
But then Diane comes out with her bullshit detector and tells him what his problems really are.
It isn’t just that he’s too nice or passive; it’s that he isn’t advocating for the best interest of his daughters, who are passed between houses like puppies. Or that he can’t admit to being hung up on Charlie and find the strength to moving on. Or, as should be and is most important to her, he doesn’t see her daughter as professionally as he does his male students, such as when he asks her to babysit for him rather than come to class.
The value of having two people like Hall and Williams’s characters on screen (although not enough) is that their directness cuts the sweetness of the film, which Strouse infuses with bright cinematography by Chris Teague and a childlike score by Mark Orton. Hall can be soft and affectionate, but the movie never allows her to become anything but the strong, direct woman Diane is, which is why she’s so easy to like. And as it should be, she has raised Kat to be cool, smart, and with the same bullshit detector and is only of the only people that will call Will out on his problems. And it should be said that Williams is great in the movie, and makes me question why she seems to only have one more film project coming up. Come on, Hollywood!
After this year’s earlier What We Do in the Shadows, it’s nice to see how low-key Clement can be on-screen without losing his comic sensibilities. The guy is just funny, and his character beats fit Strouse’s deadpan style. People Places Things might not exactly be doing anything new with this kind of domestic love story, but it does tell the small, intimate story very well. And it’s unapologetic in wanting, and succeeding, to make the all-too-rare these days: feel-good romantic-comedy.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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