Dustin Guy Defa’s newest film is a sight to behold, but ultimately a masterclass in making movies where nothing ever happens.
Person To Person is only 84 minutes long. That’s 6 minutes less than the average movie runtime of 90 minutes, but possibly 84 minutes too long once one considers that it is a movie which takes its viewers absolutely nowhere. It is billed as an ensemble drama, and even as a comedy – although whoever approved the latter qualification was definitely being much too generous with the film. The motley crew of actors that makes up its casting are talented, too; which makes Person To Person an even bigger disappointment, when one takes into account just how much talent has been wasted on flimsy characterisation and ham-fisted writing.
Defa gives his audience no further reasons to sympathise with [the characters] even as their stories unfold.
The film follows several characters living in New York as they go about the course of one day; each facing their own trials and tribulations which occasionally intertwine loosely. Benny (Bene Coopersmith), a collector of vintage vinyl, responds to a call to buy Charlie Parker’s coveted Bird Blows The Blues record while also dealing with his best friend Ray (George Sample III) – on the run from his ex-girlfriend’s brother, who intends to break both Ray’s legs for putting naked pictures of his sister online during a manic depressive episode. On the other side of the city, in an affluent neighbourhood by Central Park, teenager Wendy (Rookie Magazine founder Tavi Gevinson) skips school with her best friend Melanie (Olivia Luccardi), espousing the fact that all genitalia is inherently ugly and taking a horrendously irritating holier-than-thou stance on the subject of Melanie’s boyfriend.
At the same time, Claire (Abbi Jacobson, known best for her work on Broad City), a reporter with social anxiety, struggles on the first day of her job even with guidance from her dorky supervisor Phil (Michael Cera). Claire and Phil are trying to get coverage on a murder allegedly committed by a character known only as The Widow (Michaela Watkins), whom they tail to a clock repair shop owned by the irate and elderly Jimmy (a fantastically deadpan Philip Baker Hall). Each character’s story unfolds over a series of vignettes, more often than not connected to each other, as they traverse New York City in an attempt to achieve some kind of fulfilment in their day.
If the above paragraph was a lot to take in, then you’ve grasped the inherent problem with Person To Person. Ensemble dramas function well only when its characters are given suitable development – something that writer and director Dustin Guy Defa completely fails to do for 84 whole minutes. None of the above characters are in the least bit empathetic and relatable, and Defa gives his audience no further reasons to sympathise with them even as their stories unfold. In fact, some characters are just downright unlikeable. Wendy is undoubtedly the chief offender here; a prime example of a teenaged character written by a middle-aged man who does not actually have the slightest clue as to what real teenagers talk like. Her monologues broach a variety of topics from teenage anxiety in the modern age to her character’s own bisexuality, but they are delivered with all the condescension of Harvard’s most pretentious psychology grad student, and Defa’s treatment of sexuality as a buzz topic completely falls flat – unsurprising, seeing as Wendy is a bisexual character who cannot even bring herself to say the word “bisexual”.
the film did indeed have so much potential to succeed
As for Claire and Phil, it would be no overstatement to say that Abbi Jacobson and Michael Cera’s comic talents were phenomenally wasted on their flimsy, cardboard-cutout characters – the former having no depth, and the latter turning out to be yet another annoying, entitled male lecher that male writers in Hollywood seem to love inserting into their films these days. Even Benny, perhaps the only character that audiences may find themselves rooting for throughout the movie, ends his character’s arc of conflict with a fumbling, hypocritical Robin-Hood spiel about being a morally conscientious conman. Person To Person may be a movie about finding oneself in some way, no matter how small, but the only truth of the universe that audiences will find at the end of their 84 minute stay in the cinema is just how mind-bogglingly boring some films can be.
This is a pity, too, because Person To Person is undoubtedly a visual treat. Filmed in 35mm by cinematographer Ashley Connor, the movie’s muted greens and browns perfectly capture New York through a nostalgic filter that is more evocative than oppressive. Coupled with the movie’s excellently curated soundtrack – a collection of jazz, funk, and soul tracks that had the audience’s feet tapping even at the limpest of moments – the film did indeed have so much potential to succeed. And in a time when just showing up is half the battle, Person To Person, unfortunately, did not bother to even get out of bed.
‘Person To Person’ will screen at London Film Festival 2017, taking place from 4th to 15th October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Magnolia Pictures