The new ensemble comedy Person to Person initially seems like yet another character-driven film that adores and idolizes New York City all out of proportion. Thankfully the flick offers much more to jaded viewers beyond that first “mumblecore Woody Allen” impression. As a recently transplanted New Yorker, I am highly familiar with this potentially grating brand of Brooklyn Preciousness — certain characters who talk like they watch nothing but Cassavetes movies, a soundtrack dominated by obscure soul cuts — but I must admit that Person to Person comes by its attitude honestly. (I mean, it turns out that co-founder of the retro label The Numero Group and crate digger extraordinaire Ken Shipley is the film’s music supervisor, so I can’t even really stay mad about those soundtrack songs.)
More than the Manhattan of Woody Allen’s movies, Person to Person pleasantly evokes the funky, lived-in vibe of Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s somewhat forgotten duology of mid-’90s Brooklyn charmers, Smoke and Blue in the Face.
The folks with top billing in Person to Person are Michael Cera and Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson. Jacobson plays a tabloid reporter on her first day. Cera is her supervisor, who guides her through scoring a potentially juicy scoop about a recent widow (Casual‘s Michaela Watkins), suspected of killing her husband. Jacobson’s character is immediately a bad fit for the job, unable to be cutthroat in the presence of other reporters or even ask a direct question when given the chance. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Cera’s character probably hired her less for her suitability than for the possibility that she might eventually go on a date with him. Cera tries to give Jacobson a pep talk about following her instincts; she replies: “My instinct is to quit this job, run away, and go home.”
Other storylines, some of which lightly overlap, involve Bene Coopersmith as a record lover looking to make a score on a classic jazz LP, George Sample III as his lovelorn roommate who copes with heartbreak by posting nudes of his ex online, and precocious fashion guru Tavi Gevinson as a square-peg teenager whose demonstrative distaste for her bestie’s romantic relationship barely masks her insecurity about her own inexperience. Philip Baker Hall plays a world-weary (surprise!) watch repairman whose shop becomes an unexpected meeting place for some of the film’s characters.
Writer-director Dustin Guy Defa attempts a tricky balance, where Person to Person doesn’t overburden the characters with too much plot, allowing us to essentially just watch them exist in their distinct milieux, but the film provides just enough conflict and story to keep each little slice-of-life grounded and engaging.
Mostly, Defa likes to revel in details, like Cera’s insistence upon listening to his own band’s metal riffs while driving or Coopersmith’s unrelenting uncertainty about whether the new shirt he is wearing really suits him. Eight or nine times out of ten, this approach works. The film is rooted in strong, likable performances and sprinkled with pleasant jolts of low-key personality. One is left with the lingering impression of a relatively undemanding but quite satisfying short story collection.
Person to Person arrives in select theaters and on VOD, July 28.