PERSON TO PERSON: The New York Comedy Revisited
Some of the lines in Person to Person may ring with a certain cliched timbre, but perhaps that should only be expected from a film that trades in tired New York stereotypes that are by their very nature familiar and inviting.
Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa, Person to Person plays out like any of the great Woody Allen New York comedies of the 1970s and 1980s. Characters collide into one another at random, or not at all, in a flurry of activity that strives to mirror the average day of the stereotypical New Yorker.
One nebbish-looking, bespectacled denizen (Bene Coopersmith) is striving in vain to procure a rare vinyl pressing of an obscure Charlie Parker recording, while another hard-on-his-luck young man (George Sample III) comes to terms with an indecent act perpetrated against his ex-girlfriend, and yet another (Tavi Gevinson) faces questions about identity, sexuality, and death.
And at the center of all this commotion is a primary love story/murder mystery that sees Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson dance around one another in mock flirtation. Enter the venerable Philip Baker Hall as an impromptu character witness to the alleged crime of Michaela Watkins, and you have the makings of a passable comedy of errors.
Another New York Comedy
To its credit, Person to Person manages to tell a series of completely capable personal stories at a breezy pace that never overstays its welcome. The individual narrative arcs are marked by the same kinds of anxieties and neuroses that have become synonymously associated with New York City. The characters all feel like amalgamations of the kinds of people one might haphazardly run into during an afternoon stroll along the metropolis’ bustling streets and thoroughfares, each one half-aware of their tacit connection to the lives of one other.
Like Woody Allen‘s Manhattan, Person to Person offers a slightly myopic worldview of its 21st century American city some thirty-plus years on. The familiar sights and sounds of New York City remain largely intact, and Cera and Jacobson do their best to ape the archetypal roles first established by Allen and Keaton in Annie Hall.
But more often than not, Defa fumbles the ball of his creative passion in his attempt to catch Allen‘s high-arcing hit to deep center field. Even in later films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Blue Jasmine, Allen deftly manages to navigate his many narrative detours in order to introduce supporting characters that serve to underline his chief protagonists’ personal inconsistencies and shortcomings.
Comparatively, Defa never really manages to find a clear through line to any of his surrogate romantic leads. Starting with the first scene, wherein Bene Coopersmith makes initial contact with an independent seller of an invaluable vinyl record, the viewer is kept at an emotional distance. Shortly thereafter, the film’s other possible heroes and villains are introduced at such a breakneck pace that their individual motivations begin to cancel one another out.
Jacobson‘s apathetic engagement with Cera as an investigative reporter rings with a certain generational malaise, only to be buried underneath the far more compelling layers of Philip Baker Hall‘s underutilized and under-explored turn as an aging clockmaker. Forced to confront a world that has turned from analog to digital, Hall‘s occupational uncertainty resides in a state of limbo throughout the film, and stands as perhaps the most moving ode to the many woebegone souls that have made New York City their home.
But Defa is also temporarily concerned with the equally sympathetic characters portrayed by George Sample III and Michaela Watkins, whose respective plights track paths that intersect in odd and distracting ways with those more clearly forged by Coopersmith, Cera, and Jacobson. Sample III is simultaneously melancholic and comedic, while Watkins serves as a waylaid tragedian in a script more preoccupied with accidental folly.
When Person to Person finally manages to get back on track in the end, and Watkins is finally arrested for her great crime of passion, the questions that remain to be solved in the lives of the many related characters are glibly glossed over. Instead of offering some kind of cathartic moment of climactic or anticlimactic resolution, a spurned Cera is left pounding his desk in juvenile frustration as Jacobson decides to pursue other avenues of employment.
Person to Person: Conclusion
Another director might have decided to hone in on just one or two of the characters depicted in Person to Person in order to deliver a more compelling character study. Then again, Defa seems so intent on offering only the briefest of glimpses into the characters of his imagination that more nuance could very well serve to defeat the purpose of the entire exercise.
Coopersmith and Hall give what are perhaps the two standout performances, but in each case their characters bump into several more interesting bit players – most noticeably Eleonore Hendricks and Isiah Whitlock Jr. – who undermine their dramatic superiority. In a way, Person to Person is about everyone and no one, as the seemingly inane connections between individuals serves to sever the self-involved prison of the very same kind of subjective egocentrism that defines Woody Allen at his worst.
Despite refusing any easy conclusion from being reached by film’s end, Defa delivers a thoroughly engaging New York comedy that borrows from the tropes and styles of Allen and others. The individual performances offered by its all-star cast of Hollywood A-listers and character actors lend Person to Person a gravity that never feels too heavy.
Like any other thematically centralized anthology feature, Person to Person offers a cornucopia of psychological types by which the viewer may navigate an objectively structured world. Some of the lines may ring with a certain cliched timbre, but perhaps that should only be expected from a film that trades in tired New York stereotypes that are by their very nature familiar and inviting.
What’s your favorite comedy about New York City? Are you interested in seeing Person to Person? Tell us in the comments below!
Person to Person saw theatrical release in the U.S. on July 28, 2017, and is currently available to rent online. For international release dates.
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