Film Review: Person to Person

A grab-bag of slacker-ish New Yorkers bumble through a day’s worth of anxiety-producing errands and quests in this nicely textured but only somewhat amusing comedy.
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There are about three indie movies’ worth of story shot through writer-director Dustin Guy Defa’s slim pseudo-crime comedy Person to Person. That doesn’t mean that Defa has overstretched himself here. The movie’s running time of under an hour and a half seems just right. As it is, more than a few sequences feel so loose and stringy that they barely cohere. Defa’s analog feel for the textures of New York helps some of the weaker parts float along. But at least one of the stories in this cloud of barely connected urban hipster elements could have produced something just a touch more memorable, if given the room to breathe.

Borrowing nothing more than the title and star of his 2014 festival-circuit short, Defa establishes his major players and their predicaments with no great sense of urgency. In the framing story, Bene (Bene Coopersmith), whose employment and day-to-day purpose is in question, gets a lead on a rare record for sale: the red vinyl edition of Charlie Parker’s Bird Blows the Blues. Since there isn’t much else tying the guy down, he jumps on the deal. On his way out, Bene finds his friend Ray (a sleepy George Sample III) still crashed out on the couch.

Bene’s attempts to make one big score with this increasingly fraught record deal, pay off his debts and impress his girlfriend with some big spending have a drifting Zen cool that wafts through many of the other stories. The only storyline featuring people with a kind of purpose follows Claire (Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City”), a depressed and tightly wrapped pile of neuroses on her first day of work at a daily newspaper. Her mentor, Phil (Michael Cera), is a nervous jabberer who fancies himself a true scrivener of the streets. But, enthusiasm aside, he’s hardly a good fit for the job, and seems to exist mostly on tips from police detectives who feel sorry for him. Phil’s efforts to inspire Claire, when in fact he’s just trying to impress her, don’t go anywhere useful. “My instinct,” she says through clenched teeth after failing yet again to get the story, “is to quit this job, run away and go home.”

Claire and Phil are digging into a story about a man who has been found dead, and now the police are trying to determine whether it was murder or suicide. Tangentially connected to that is Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), a grumpy watch repairman Claire tiredly pumps for information. Storming into the movie a little later is the dead man’s wife, Mrs. Crimsley (Michaela Watkins), whose nervy imperiousness stands in sharp contrast to the underperforming slackitude displayed by most of the rest of the characters. (For instance, while Claire and Phil are ostensibly reporters, neither shows a notepad or pen.)

Little connects the less satisfying storylines to the murder/suicide mystery at the movie’s core. In the lazier of the two, Ray shambolically deals with his guilt over having posted naked pictures of his girlfriend online, an act her brother seeks vengeance for. The other features Wendy (Tavi Gevinson, Cera’s co-star from their Broadway turn in This Is Our Youth), a darkly intense teenager getting roped by her friend into a relationship she insists she’s uninterested in. Wracked with conviction, confusion and sexual anxiety, Wendy delivers blazing moral soliloquies and polysyllabic essays so intellectually dense and far-ranging that they seem to have drifted in from another, much harder-working movie.

Needless to say, Person to Person does not spend much time trying to knot its plot strands together into something coherent. We are not in Robert Altman country here, there is no grand unifying theory to the stories except a certain striving to get by. Working from a looser palette, composed of New York street life and a jazzy collection of mood-setting tunes, Defa’s low-slung, part-Jarmusch and part-mumblecore comedy only succeeds when it tries. And it doesn’t try hard enough.

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