The Public Cinema: Person to Person (2017)
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
7:00 PM, Regal Riviera Stadium 8, 510 South Gay Street, Downtown Knoxville
Person to Person, which plays in Knoxville this Wednesday thanks to The Public Cinema, is a New York character piece about crime and passion—but not in the way you might think. The film opens, as so many do, with the now-obligatory montage of New York public life set to a feel-good soul track, but the snapshots provided are more mundane than iconic. Instead of Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge, we’re treated to intentionally unremarkable glimpses of people waiting for the cashier at the laundromat, high school football players running laps, and garbage trucks making the rounds.
Immediately, it is clear that director Dustin Guy Defa is interested in subverting the tradition set by cinema’s iconic New York stories. To Defa, New York is just a place filled with people, not a mecca of noteworthy incident. He knows the big theatrical cliches, though–so he cuts them down to size with clumsy characters who fit their roles awkwardly, like children in hand-me-down clothes. And as Person to Person is an ensemble piece with no central character, there’s plenty of subject matter to lampoon.
Person to Person presents four disconnected stories that share shades of the same central themes. In one, a record collector seeks a rare Charlie Parker LP, only to find he’s been scammed. In another, two reporters search for evidence to solve a recent murder. In a third story, a man yearns to make amends with his ex-girlfriend after uploading revenge porn of her to the internet. And in the fourth, a teenage girl begrudgingly serves as a third-wheel for her lovesick friend, to later find she’s being unwillingly set up with another.
Each story is one of transgression, but they’re all just a bit more quaint than one might assume. In the tale of the set-up, for example, our protagonist isn’t exactly sexiled–she simply complains of her friend’s too-frequent make-out sessions, offering a refreshingly innocent view of high-school sexual mores. More comically, the record scam culminates in a chase sequence between two hipster-types on fixie bikes–including a brief interlude to carry them down a flight of stairs–all set to a cool-jazz soundtrack in what may very well be the biggest laugh of the film.
But the most cartoonish element of all is the police procedural, which is undercut almost purely by its casting: the rookie news investigator is Abbi Jacobson of Broad City fame, while her hard-boiled superior is the ever-boyish Michael Cera, who delivers the expertise of a grizzled veteran in stilted dialogue and offers sage life advice by quoting thrash metal lyrics. Like much of Person to Person, Cera’s character is an impossible-to-take-seriously imitation of an archetypal trope.
Aside from Cera and Jacobson, the only broadly familiar face here is the prestigious Philip Baker Hall in a small role as a watch repairman that is a witness in the murder case, but the production is littered with lesser-known players of the indie film scene. Those who don’t follow indie film closely are invited to skip this next paragraph, but there are a lot of connections to be made here:
Two of the film’s executive producers are David Lowery (of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, and Disney’s unexpectedly gentle Pete’s Dragon) and Joe Swanberg (the standard-bearer of the mumblecore scene ). The cast also includes the undersung Safdie Brothers’ collaborator Buddy Duress (supporting actor in Good Time, one of the year’s best films and a tonal opposite to Person to Person in its propulsiveness and high stakes) as well as Eleonore Hendricks (from Caveh Zahedi’s hysterical The Show about the Show, which was screened by Knoxville’s Public Cinema earlier this year and also stars Person to Person director Dustin Guy Defa).
The ultimate point here is that Person to Person is a constellation of names and faces operating on the ground-level of the film scene, catering to a niche audience and reflecting the film’s overall ethos of small-scale interminglings in a mundane world.
Person to Person is not a particularly ambitious film, because it is content to be discreet and humble, offering a quiet chuckle in the face of gravitas. As a result, it may not impact audiences terribly much, as the film plays itself so quaint and twee that the overall effect may seem inconsequential, ironically feeling derivative of the many other Wes-Anderson-inspired indie offerings in its attempt to parody familiar film tropes from the mainstream. It’s the hipster’s paradox: what is cool when uncool is cool?
Regardless of how you feel about that particular cultural conundrum, Person to Person is an amusing and pleasant experience that is sure to be a crowd pleaser for The Public Cinema. This one is tailor-made for the microcinema crowd and it’s a film that Knoxvillians wouldn’t get the chance to see without their curation. And as a bonus, the producer of the film, James P. Johnston will be in attendance to do a Q&A after the screening.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the characters portrayed by Abbi Jacobson and Michael Cera as cops. Their characters were actually news reporters for a NYC newspaper.