PERSON TO PERSON * * 1 / 2
Starring Bene Coopersmith, Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson and Philip Baker Hall. Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa.
A certain kind of independent movie emerged briefly as a Sundance staple in the late nineties and early aughts, when cozy, low-stakes, overlapping anecdotes of genial city dwellers fueled festival fare like 13 Conversations About One Thing or Sidewalks Of New York. I suppose the gold standard for this sort of thing was Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s 1995 Smoke, which alongside its improvised, shot-on-the-fly sequel Blue In The Face conjured a warm, welcoming vision of pre-gentrified Brooklyn as a bohemian island of misfit toys. But the rest of them proved so unmemorable I just had to spend twenty minutes on IMDB looking up titles and synopses of movies I actually reviewed.
Dustin Guy Defa’s Person To Person is a throwback to these easygoing tales of the city, with a handful of semi-interlocking New York stories taking place on a single day. It’s an extremely pleasant picture, with good performances from an appealing cast. I watched it in the morning and liked it just fine. By dinner time I had forgotten I’d seen a movie that day.
Person To Person begins with likeable motormouth Bene Coopersmith being scammed while trying to buy a rare Charlie Parker album, and the movie periodically checks in on his attempts to track down the con artist and get his money back. Meanwhile we’re also following lovelorn pangs of regret from his deadpan, depressive roommate (George Sample III) who recently posted pictures of his ex on a revenge porn website.
Across town, Michael Cera co-stars as an obnoxiously insecure tabloid newspaper reporter trying to tutor an attractive protégé (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) while hitting on her as awkwardly as possible. They’re working on a story about a murder case where a crucial piece of evidence just might be in the custody of a grizzled wristwatch repairman of few words, played by the great Philip Baker Hall.
There’s also a less-developed thread following the fragile Tavi Gevinson as a school-skipping teen with unspecified emotional problems, which feels more like the filmmaker found a captivating face and was looking for an excuse to leave the camera on it for as long as possible.
Shot on gorgeously grainy 16mm, Person To Person has a low-key analog funk to match its soundtrack of vintage soul. Defa avoids the city’s shinier tourist traps and sticks to neighborhoods where people still actually live. He’s obviously got friends all over the indie film business: the movie boasts executive producer credits for industry workhorses Joe Swanberg and David Lowery, plus cameo performances by directors David Zellner and Benny Safdie.
What’s missing is a larger sense of purpose pulling all these stories together. The movie needed a scene like the one in Smoke where Harvey Keitel’s Christmas story throws all the themes into sharp relief. Defa made his name by directing a bunch of beloved short films, and Person To Person feels more like a few of those stitched together than a full-blown feature in its own right. Sometimes affable isn’t enough.