“It’s big and it’s not big, depending on how you see it.”
Brief, bustling, and as bewildering as it is understated, Person to Person serves as a delightful appetizer of a film to a more filling meal we never actually get to eat. This diminutive stylistic choice feels intentional, though; following various characters through New York City, their paths crossing ever so briefly, the stories intertwine and mingle in the way some conversations do at adult parties after 10 P.M. Loose and casual and occasionally impassioned. Person to Person is a memorable film in the way that so many passing, perplexing and nameless people tend to linger long after a short encounter. We don’t recall the words and can’t pen the verbal exchange, yet we know how they made us feel. In this case, the emotional outpouring is both energized and periodically listless.
Looking back through the side mirrors instead of the sharply realized rearview, I think I’d have liked the film even more had it tried to establish its characters even less. We don’t need their names or specific backgrounds; their actions are what define them and they are so unique that we know them with hardly a word ever spoken. Bene (Bene Coopersmith) searches for a rare Charlie Parker vinyl print, encouraging his friend Ray (George Sample III) to leave the couch and walk around the block. The junk journalist and soft-speaking metalhead Phil (Michael Cera) enlists the help of temp-employee Claire (Abbi Jacobson) to inspect a case. Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) has a clock shop. Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) is resistant to the young teen mold, her thoughts existential and her judgement of others utterly piercing. Person to Person doesn’t preach to us through tired monologues (although it can also be tactlessly pretentious) but rather through the soft-spoken interactions of people desperate to live.
Person to Person should probably be cautiously welcomed by the same crowds who adore Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, partially because it’s a strangely absorbing story about nothing in particular and because its humor is largely self-degrading. The film is familiar yet always surprisingly different in that regard. Splice it into three parts with a layered in laugh track to boot and it’d feel right at home on cable TV. As such, Dustin Guy Defa’s film is frequently funny, awkwardly aloof, dramatically pensive. It’s a replicant and a product of Woody Allen’s 1990’s creative experiments, and at the same time a #2 Dixon Ticonderoga and stone-rubbed imitator of tried and true classics. This is not a great film by most measures, but it’s always good enough, and cinephiles will be able to pick out all of the pieces that inspired it.
I can’t exactly remember how Person to Person ends or how it begins, nor can I give an accurate enough description for a sketch artist to nail down the accused in a criminal line-up. So despite its hiccups and the far les interesting and introspective take on 2016’s razor-sharp cut into the frozen nature of the Big Apple titled The Mend, Defa’s picture offers up the quintessential diner classics. Person to Person develops real, original, involving characters. And never once did I care about the fractured story they’re contained to. But I can imagine them elsewhere, fully and wholly real, and I think that’s one of cinema’s greatest strengths; blending reality with fiction takes noticeable skill. Person to Person practices this juxtaposition, and as it walks along the lengthy floor to ceiling mirrored hallways, we act on the inclination to look at ourselves. It’s odd. It’s personal. And it’s an art-school attempt to honor the so-called Gods of film. Defa’s movie is a practiced virgin (if ever such a thing could actually exist) and he’s eager to the point that we assume he’s afraid he’ll lose it if he doesn’t use it. Person to Person adamantly penetrates without being big enough to register on the Summer blockbuster Richter scale, although it does lend us the kind of conversational skills rarely taught anymore.
“It looks like you’re holding back your emotions.”
Rating: 3 out of 5