Person to Person: An uninspired love letter to New York
New York. New York never changes. At least, that’s my understanding based on the city’s long cinematic history. Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person is the latest contribution to that unchanging New York film canon, looking like so many other explorations of the budding auteur’s favorite city: full of motormouthed pretentious losers, neurotic hustlers, and romantic, hardworking folk going about their everyday business. Sure, the film might possess some charm, but is that enough to offset the viewer’s desire for more exotic fare?
Exploring a day in the life of New York, Person to Person falls squarely in the genre of city ode in which the urban surroundings form, in effect, a main character. The stories for the most part barely intersect, and your interest in them will vary depending on which flavor of New York you prefer. Taste of the con artist? You’ll enjoy Bene (Bene Coopersmith) trying to get to the bottom of a rare record scheme. Old men working in a dying industry that hipsters romanticize more your bag? Dig into the goings-on at a clock repair shop owned and operated by Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), an elderly artisan who just wants to be left alone.
It’s not that the characters in Person to Person fall into generic New York archetypes, per se, but if you were to change the film’s location to, say, Cincinnati, it would be even less interesting. Defa banks on people’s natural interest in all things New York to prop up lazy filmmaking, covering up seams with distracting decorations. Maybe if he evinced visual ambitions beyond the level of Clerks-era Kevin Smith, those seams would be less noticeable, but for a movie set in such an iconic and commonly filmed space, it sure doesn’t give much of a fuck about aesthetic.
That’s even more frustrating when you consider the talent Defa assembles, only to let them down with unflattering framing and questionable editing decisions. Michael Cera (Arrested Development) pops up as a sad, overcompensating reporter guiding Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) on her first day. Millennial wunderkind Tavi Gevinson (Enough Said) plays a precocious bisexual high school student who should probably lay off the Camus. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire) shows up to, uh, do a really bad Frank Sinatra impression. All of these actors’ performances come off confused and awkward, a clear sign they were given little to no direction, instead simply placed in front of a camera and told, “Act.”
Person to Person’s interpretation of an unfiltered New York, equally ugly and charming, could be made more substantial, perhaps, had Defa taken a cinema verité approach and created a New York Slacker. Then, at least, it would stand out as something less self-absorbed and navel-gazey than the usual “I Heart N.Y.!” indie fare. Instead, Person to Person is an unreciprocated love letter by an obsessive, chewed up and spat out by the boroughs’ grist mill, to a city made curiously flimsy despite fixation on iconic detail.