There are plenty of characters and there is plenty of New York City in writer/director Dustin Guy Defa‘s Person To Person, but the whole thing meanders all over without ever really settling somewhere that matters. Amongst the pack, we’ve got rag newspaper reporter Phil (Michael Cera) and temp Claire (Abbi Jacobson) awkwardly getting to know each other while they follow up on a potential murder case, involving a rich widow (a criminally-wasted Michaela Watkins).
Meanwhile, a couple of old-timers (including Isiah Whitlock Jr.) hang out at a timepiece repair shop owned by Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall, understated and wonderful); a man named Bene (Bene Coopersmith) hunts down a rare Charlie Parker album while worrying about his new shirt while his best friend Ray (George Sample III) hides out at his apartment after posting nude photos online of his ex-girlfriend (Marsha Stephanie Blake); a quartet of teenagers (Tavi Gevinson, Olivia Luccardi, Hunter Zimny and Ben Rosenfield) skip school, drink, make-out and wander about town.
Coopersmith and Sample III are highlights, offering thoughtful, comedic performances, while noted stars Cera and Jacobson flounder a bit, trading moments that are both overstated and understated, and mostly aggravating. Gevinson is a lovely, strange young actress and it’s nearly worth the price of admission watching Baker Hall and Whitlock Jr. interact at all. Two old pros as talented and underrated as this duo deserve awards, at this point, just for showing up.
There is certainly — and commendably — a worn look to this version of New York City, thanks in large part to cinematographer Ashley Connor and her use of Super 16. If not for cell phones and other modern tech, we could be in the middle of a Woody Allen picture from the 1980s. Sadly, this is not enough to make interesting a narrative that never quite makes its case for being. Defa adapted this feature from his short of the same name, which screened at Sundance in 2014. Not surprisingly, the film is at its best in small, punchy bits. A bumbling Bene chasing a con man through a claustrophobic record store; an embarrassed Ray failing to negotiate with his ex’s pissed-off brother; Claire softly declining Phil’s advances. These are funny, nuanced exchanges to be sure, but there are not enough of them to justify the film’s 84-minute runtime. It’s a short movie that feels far longer than it should.
As it all begins to wrap up not-so-succinctly, it’s clear Defa intends for all of these New York moments to live on in their own corners of the city. It’s a confident way to end the film, if not wholly satisfying. These are characters worth engaging, but Person to Person too often appears disengaged from its own proceedings.
Person to Person premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens on July 28.