Overview: A group of New Yorkers deal with life and love over the course of a nondescript day. Magnolia Pictures; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 84 minutes.
Stately, Plump: It’s not an inherently bad idea to center a work of art on the quotidian struggles of ordinary people as they live their lives through a single day. James Joyce based his novel Ulysses—one of the supreme literary achievements of the modern era—on two humdrum Dubliners navigating an equally humdrum day. Dustin Guy Defa attempted something similar with his sophomore feature Person to Person, a film following a handful of tangentially related New Yorkers for the span of about 12 hours. These are ordinary folks—they’re not action heroes or supermodels, they’re not saving the world or dragging themselves through the emotional Oscar-bait gauntlet of “serious” drama. In this, the film hearkens back to the heyday of the 90s American independent movement, especially Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) in how it combines several disparate character pieces and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in its being contained to a single day. But this isn’t the 90s anymore; the market is glutted with mediocre indies coasting by on quirky screenplays set against quaint New York City backdrops. Maybe twenty years ago Person to Person could have captivated audiences and critics with its humanistic naturalism and nearly aggressive plainness. But today, the film seems bland and blasé.
Warm full blooded life?: There are four central stories going on in Person to Person. The one around which much of the film orbits centers on Bene (Bene Coopersmith), an avid record collector who gets news that a rare copy of Charlie Parker’s Bird Blows the Blues has been discovered. After meeting with the oddball seller and buying it, he realizes it’s a fake and sets out to find the swindler and make him pay. At the same time, Bene is temporarily sharing his apartment with his best friend Ray (George Sample III), an emotionally unstable man in hiding from the brothers of his ex-girlfriend after posting revenge porn of her online after discovering she slept with another man. But he can’t hide from her brothers forever—they figure out where he’s staying and arrive for a reckoning. Elsewhere in the city the potentially bipolar, potentially bisexual Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) plays hooky from school to hang out with her best friend Melanie (Olivia Luccardi), a decision she quickly regrets when Melanie practically abandons her with a cute boy before running off to have sex with her boyfriend. The sexually confused Wendy finds herself at a crossroads: does she actually find this boy attractive? And if so, why is she so terrified of being intimate with him? And finally, ex-librarian Claire (Abbi Jacobson) starts her first day on the job as a reporter for a scummy newspaper that’s tasked her with staking out the grieving widow of a suspected murder victim. Being forced to conduct intrusive, guerilla-style interviews with the widow would be bad enough, but she also has to deal with the awkward affections of her superior, Phil (Michael Cera).
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Person to Person is the confusion one feels when trying to figure out why Defa felt compelled to combine these four specific stories into a single film when, thematically, they have relatively little to do with each other. The stories of Wendy and Ray deal with mentally unbalanced people, and both Bene and Claire find themselves drawn into the world of crime. Other than that, all these stories share are the occasional character and the New York setting. One might argue that the characters are similar in that they all reach emotional closure, but the same could be said for most formulaic stories about people undergoing simplistic character arcs.
Closing: We’re left with a simple bottom line: Person to Person is gentle, occasionally sweet, sometimes charming, but wholly unoriginal and undistinguished. The film is already getting showings at some of the niche theaters here in New York, but unlike 2016’s New York indie sleeper hits Little Men and Don’t Think Twice, I can’t imagine it surviving for a wider marketplace.
Featured Image: Magnolia Pictures