Screenwriter James C. Strouse has made a name for himself with more dramatic films like Lonesome Jim and Grace Is Gone. Traces of his tragicomic bent have always been present, however, and flourish together in his latest, People Places Things. As lead character Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) notes, “Maybe misery is inexorably linked to happiness.” And this, to be sure, is one of the most profound realizations of life.
But it is a hard epiphany to come to on one’s own, as Will unexpectedly finds upon walking in on his “baby mama,” Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), having an affair with a much grosser man, Gary (Michael Chernus, who also recently appeared in Mistress America), during their twin daughters’ fifth birthday party. When Charlie insists that she’s been unhappy for so long, Will counters, “Happiness is not a sustainable condition.” This only furthers Charlie’s belief that she’s making the right decision in leaving him for Gary.
A year later, Clio (Aundrea Gadsby) and Colette’s (Gia Gadsby) sixth birthday feels very different–much more modest as Will brings them out two handmade kites in his Astoria apartment (he’s had to move from their Brooklyn brownstone). When he’s not relishing the small ray of light he receives by seeing them once a week, teaching a graphic novel class at SVA is about the only thing getting him through his depressed malaise.
Although he thinks he’s not making a difference to anyone, one of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams), looks up to him and his work as a source of inspiration for her own, and takes it to heart when he expresses his sadness to the rest of the class. She invites him over for dinner at her house to meet her mother, Diane (Regina Hall), in the hope that they’ll hit it off and stave off the loneliness that seems to be eating at both of them. Unfortunately, Diane, unbeknownst to Kat, is already seeing someone else, but goes along with the date to make Kat happy.
After a heated, yet somewhat flirtatious argument at dinner over the value of comic books in the pantheon of American literature, it’s undeniable that they’re bound to return to one another again. In spite of Will’s mild opening up to another woman, his pain over the loss of Charlie still remains a large part of his everyday life, both in his mind and in his work. But with Charlie announcing her plans to marry Gary, something she never agreed to with Will, he begins to accept that it might be time to move on.
Clement’s acting range is put to a far greater test than his usual deadpan comedic shtick (a staple of his most famous role in Flight of the Conchords), with nuanced melancholy and uncertainty making Will one of the most three-dimensional characters he’s ever played. Strouse, too, stretches his limits by infusing life’s dolor with a bit of hilarity.