Maybe it's something about Michael Cera and the projects he chooses, but the films he brings to Sundance almost seem designed to never go beyond the festival. A few years ago I thought he was pretty darn good in drug comedy Crystal Fairy, and pretty creepy in Magic Magic. Neither movie really went anywhere, though. The same fate is likely to befall Person to Person, a movie that seems to be banking utterly on your acceptance of its pseudo-vintage "day in the life of New Yorkers" vibe. While writer/director Dustin Guy Defa gets the jazzy soundtrack right, his collection of vignettes is full of under-written characters we'd rather not spend the day with, thank you very much.
Expanding on one of his earlier short films, Defa concocts five very loosely-connected stories, usually with characters paired up together, person-to-person-style. Only one of these stories actually works to feel remotely authentic, and that one stars Bene Coopersmith (reprising his role from the short) as Benny, a genuine kind of guy if there ever was one. He loves music, in particular jazz (fitting given the movie's score), he obsesses over his choice of clothes, and he treats people with respect as long as they don't screw him. He has a girlfriend that he has feelings for, but the extend of those feelings is still a little bit cloudy, but he cares about her. He's a little bit off the beaten track, too; when he's conned into buying a phony old record for his collection he goes on a city-wide bike chase to catch the culprit, delivering a mighty punch to the guy's gut.
The other stories hold no weight at all, but the most disappointing actually features Cera and Broad City's Abbi Jacobson, the two biggest stars in the movie by far. Her comic gifts are woefully misused in the role of Claire, a newbie crime reporter who is timidly working the beat with her new boss, Phil (Cera), who only sees the training as a means of trying to get a date with her. They're working a case involving the murder of a socialite's husband, which brings them into the orbit of a craggy old watch repairman (Philip Baker Hall) who spends the day verbally sparring with a pal (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who is obsessed with being a better lover than Frank Sinatra. >sigh< Another finds Tavi Gevinson as a socially-awkward, sexually-confused high schooler whose is stuck on an impromptu double date set up by her best friend. Other than Gevinson's obvious screen presence, a combination of Michelle Williams and a young Scarlett Johansson, the entire segment goes nowhere we haven't already been. She even utters the words "Sometimes I think I just feel too much", recalling Wes Bentley's confused character from American Beauty. Another storyline running parallel to Benny's is that of his friend/roommate Ray (George Sample III), a lazy, almost non-existent sort who gets in trouble for posting nude pics of his ex-girlfriend online. It simply goes nowhere. Ray has no personality, no inner life to express, no nothing. If his story had been dropped nothing would miss a beat.
Only Benny's story fully connects with the retro vibe Defa is looking to set in both sight and sound. Shot in sandy 16mm and utilizing a score that could have come from an old TV show, Person to Person at least looks and sounds the part. Too bad it doesn't feature very many persons of interest.
Rating: 2 out of 5