by Ken Bakely
I hate hating this. I really do. Joey Kuhn’s Those People is one of the most gorgeous movies I ever wish I hadn’t seen. It is shot in the most elegant of ways, with scenes beautifully backlit, whether through sunlight or stage lights or street lights. Every sequence is meticulously staged, with categorically appropriate mise-en-scène in each locale, from cramped apartments to spacious concert halls. The actors are all fine professionals, exploring unique angles in an attempt to decode their characters and dialogue from beyond the fundamentals of the script.
The problem is that the script is horridly uninteresting. There is no centralized flow to the story, and so what is in reality a quick 89 minutes feels over-padded and utterly interminable. Characters are given anecdotes or one-note personalities in lieu of development and depth. Things happen to them, but it’s very hard to argue that they learn from them, or that they are affected by the events in any way. A scene passes, and something potentially monumental happens, yet while a character’s mood may fluctuate wildly, their traits as a person are identical to who they were before their life-changing experience. Nobody grows. Nobody changes.
They do have names, which is helpful. Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), is a twenty-something art student who is finishing up his degree at NYU. He has harbored a longterm crush on his close friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph), who has been enshrined in a city-wide controversy. Coming from an immensely wealthy family, Sebastian has all the hallmarks of a New York City socialite whose sense of entitlement and history of questionable behavior has led to widespread ostracizing, especially after accusations that he assisted his father in a high-profile fraud case which resulted in his old man being sent to jail. While Charlie still likes Sebastian in spite of this, his life is complicated by Tim (Haaz Sleiman), a Lebanese-American pianist. He’s a few years older, more emotionally mature, and more exact about what he wants in life. There is a conflict now for Charlie, as he attempts to figure out what path to take – to begin to change or try to stick with the life he’s been expecting.
That Those People is such a slog is disappointing. Kuhn clearly has his heart in the right place, and as an independent filmmaker, it’s likely he was bearing more of the brunt of this project than a major studio director would. But there can be problems in cases like these, and there’s often a piece of the puzzle missing, which causes the entire picture to look incomplete. In this case, it’s the script, which runs around in circles, tugging vaguely at its characters but ultimately failing to move them in any conceivably palpable way. Charlie is vague and self-centered. While it is not necessary, especially in the age of the anti-hero, for a protagonist to be likable per se, a main character should be at least interesting. But he mopes and mumbles incessantly, leaving no discernable watermark. Things only happen to him, plot points bouncing off him as he reacts in whatever way feels right at the moment. His traits as a person are simply far too shallow and stationary. In portraying Charlie, Jonathan Gordon does what he can, but ultimately it’s not very much.
This is Kuhn’s first feature film, and it seems that most of his issues as a filmmaker are inherent to his writing. Truth be told, he is, on the most fundamental level, a skilled photographer. He, along with cinematographer Leonardo D’Antoni, can capture motion in a perfectly earnest way. Kuhn has a future, provided that he direct somebody else’s material. You can look at a movie like Those People, and be enamored by every individual setpiece, every example of inspired set design and spacing, and feel a degree of respect for it. But as every character comes around, spouts off inane dialogue, and acts in incomprehensible ways, you realize there is nothing here worth watching for an hour and a half. That’s a letdown if there ever was one.