The first surprise in Person to Person, a day-in-the-life-of ensemble indie, is that even though it opens with a 40-ish beardo rousing from bed thrilled to spend a weekday chasing down a rare Charlie Parker LP, the movie is not a satire. In fact, that beardo later delivers a speech that played to my ears like a long-needed rebuke to the collector creep Steve Buscemi portrayed in Ghost World, the gnarled little man who snaps, “Maybe I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.” Beatific Benny (Bene Coopersmith), on the other hand, adores his interests, and sees himself as something like the Tom Joad of the vinyl world: “Me, I’ve got music in my heart. I’ve got love for it. I seek it out. I find records, I collect them, I sell them to people who have that same love inside.”
Coopersmith invests the lines with a guileless earnestness, and since the film’s crate-digging soundtrack is all lost R&B gems, you know that writer-director Dustin Guy Defa (Bad Fever) doesn’t think this is a joke.
Defa knows it’s all a little funny, of course — witness Benny just minutes earlier, forced to give chase to a low-level crook but first having to take the time to unlock his bicycle from a signpost. Person to Person is a gently comic slices-of-life drama, the kind where a variety of people’s conflicting, occasionally overlapping experiences of the city come together into a messy whole. While Benny sets out to score Bird Plays the Blues, his shut-in roommate, Ray (George Sample III), flees a man who wants to break his legs, and teen pals Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) and Melanie (Olivia Luccardi) skip school to hang out at Melanie’s house — and then face a crisis of friendship when Wendy, a motormouth narrator of her every doubt, learns that Melanie has invited a boyfriend along so they can make out.
This all is sweet, offhand stuff, the naturalistic (and sometimes uncertain) performances benefiting from crisp cutting and being scored to vintage grooves.
These playfully inconsequential stories are set against a darker thread involving a possible murder — and the cast’s biggest names. On her first day as a junior reporter, Abbi Jacobson’s hesitant Claire gets paired with Michael Cera’s friendless showoff Phil, who blasts his own metal band as he drives her to a crime scene and quotes daft lyrics (“Fear is the rape of the mind”) to encourage her to question reluctant sources. Person to Person’s sweetness curdles a little in these scenes; Defa’s film might not be satiric, but every Cera performance is, almost by definition, a parody of masculine frailty.
Phil needs Claire to be dazzled by him, and he also needs her to break open the story they’re after: A widow (Michaela Watkins) whose husband, purportedly a suicide, might be her victim. This all builds to sketch-comedy scenes of Jacobson questioning the owner of a clock shop (a wonderfully nonplussed Philip Baker Hall). Much of Person to Person honors the ongoing indie project of testing how much movie-plot nonsense you can strip away and still have an engaging feature; the Jacobson/Cera/Hall storyline tests how much you can add back in without spoiling the integrity of the rest. Since the performers are so nimble and (with the exception of Cera) unaffected, the answer is “quite a bit.”