By Adam Yuster
An extended montage featuring the sights, sounds, and citizens of New York City set to vintage music. Sound familiar? It did to me. After watching the opening scene of Dustin Guy Defa’s new film, Person to Person, I could’ve sworn I was in for a remake of Manhattan. As it turns out, I was only half-wrong. Person to Person is Woody Allen-lite. It has all of his witty dialogue and none of his social commentary.
An expansion of Defa’s 2014 short of the same name, Person to Person is an ensemble film that tracks four unrelated characters throughout the course of a single day. Claire (Abbi Jacobson) is a reporter trainee chasing the story of a murder suspect under the direction of her coworker, Phil (Michael Cera). Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) is a bisexual teenager who ditches class to spend the day with her best friend and ends up in a complicated tryst. Bene (Bene Coopersmith) is a record collector who gets conned into buying a fake Charlie Parker record. And Ray (George Sample III), Bene’s roommate, is a recently single man who is targeted by his ex’s brother after enlisting a tech specialist to post naked pictures of his ex online.
In the grand tradition of mumblecore films by directors like the Duplass brothers and Noah Baumbach, Person to Person relishes the mundane. It is a movie that thrives on casual conversation. To Person to Person’s credit, most of that conversation is pretty funny. But when the laughs die, the film’s flaws bubble to the surface. In the case of each of the four interweaving stories, the plot is threadbare. That’s fine – in movies like this, rich, complex characters often compensate for plot. But the main characters lack essential development, too. The only one who comes off as anything close to three dimensional is Wendy. Claire, Ray, and Bene feel so undercooked that it is difficult to assign any defining traits to them. The film falls victim to a trap that often plagues Woody Allen himself: talking head syndrome. After a while, its characters all start to sound like one person.
Person to Person also contains some strange gaps in logic that Defa tries and fails to brush under the rug. Exhibit A: why would a newly hired reporter with no prior experience be handed a murder case on her first day? Exhibit B: how could a youthful person such as Ray have such a limited understanding of the Internet, and why would he hire an outside party to post pictures of his girlfriend instead of figuring out how to do it himself? You’d think a movie with such a simple, minimalistic plot could devote at least a portion of its run time toward filling in these blanks. Alas, these questions go unanswered.
Ultimately, two stand-out performances make Person to Person worthwhile. Michael Cera is far and away the best thing about the film. He has the blessing and curse of looking exactly as he did 10 years ago, so it’s fitting that he plays a wannabe hotshot who desperately tries to seem cool but never quite hits the mark. And Coopersmith, a Brooklyn-based record store owner in real life, is a surprise treat. His calm, subtly neurotic performance anchors the film and echoes its overall tone.
Person to Person is a pleasant, innocuous little movie and an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. But if you’re looking for a film that makes a deep statement about life, look elsewhere. Or just watch Manhattan.