Big studios don’t take many chances on small movies like “People Like Us.” That’s especially true in the midst of a typical summer season driven by superheroes, scientists in space and warrior princesses (both animated and live action).
In fact, it’s not very likely a big studio — in this case DreamWorks and Disney — would’ve taken a chance on “People Like Us” either if its director Alex Kurtzman and his co-writer Roberto Orci weren’t so good at playing the Hollywood game. Over the past few years, Kurtzman and Orci have made their names writing “Transformers, “Star Trek,” “The Legend of Zorro” and “Mission: Impossible III,” in addition to serving as writers and producers on “Alias” and “Fringe.” This gives them some degree of commercial clout and presumably helped get a greenlight for a film that’s a pleasantly idiosyncratic addition to an otherwise insular release schedule.
But Kurtzman and Orci’s background in slick blockbuster filmmaking bring other elements to “People Like Us” that aren’t quite as beneficial. The movie is unusually in your face for an intimate character-driven drama. It’s fast, loud and flashy in a way that tends to play up the artificiality of the situations and the very movie-ish nature of the screenwriting. This is a film that wants to be a heartfelt personal expression, but is too tied to proven formula and style to totally succeed.
The story focuses on smooth talking young salesman Sam (Chris Pine) who goes home to Los Angeles for his father’s funeral with his supportive girlfriend (Olivia Wilde). Sam has barely spoken to his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) in years, a side effect of a longstanding rift with his late father. He soon discovers that his father had an illegitimate daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), who still lives in L.A., and it’s Sam’s responsibility to get Frankie and her son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) the money his father left them in his will. Sam tracks Frankie down and follows her to an AA meeting, where he begins to insinuate himself into her life without telling her the truth about his identity or their relationship.
And so the movie is constructed out of the fragile relationships Sam has with his girlfriend, his mother, his half-sister and his nephew. “People Like Us” aspires to human drama with light touches in the best vein of Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks or what Alexander Payne recently pulled off so beautifully in “The Descendants,” but it pales next to these benchmarks. The writing isn’t strong enough, the direction isn’t nuanced enough and there’s a crippling miscalculation in the Sam and Frankie relationship — the longer Sam puts off revealing the truth, the creepier their scenes together become. He has no credible reason to keep her in the dark about his father and the money that was left behind, except that the film hasn’t yet reached its third act of inevitable fallout and forgiveness.
Still, a good cast goes a long way in masking narrative and stylistic flaws and “People Like Us” has a strong if small ensemble. There’s been something of a disconnect in Pine’s career so far between his impressive work in LA theater (including Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig,” Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “Farragut North,” which became George Clooney’s “The Ides of March”) and his perfectly OK work in films (the highlights to date being a scene-stealing character turn in “Smokin’ Aces” and a capable display of movie star charisma in “Star Trek”). This role feels like an attempt to bridge that gap, and if the material doesn’t always ring true it’s not Pine’s fault. He delivers a commanding and emotionally layered star turn worthy of a better, deeper script.
Banks has a slightly more thankless task of creating a credible working class single mom with less screen time and less colors to play. She’s like Erin Brockovich — sexy, sassy and tough — without the memorable one-liners and exciting personal and professional arc. But when Banks is allowed to play up Frankie’s humor — her real strength as a performer — she shines, and with so much of the film resting on her rapport with Pine it’s a pleasure to see them click so well together. D’Addario has a big challenge as the cast member with the least experience but arguably the third most important character in the film, and it’s a challenge he meets head on. He’s a believable kid, a bit of a troublemaker, precocious but not cutesy, and very natural.
Pfeiffer and Wilde bring considerable class and craft to roles less glamorous than they often play. Pfeiffer’s big dramatic moments explore issues of life, death, regrets and aging, and her character drops a series of soapy reveals on her son. Even though Pfeiffer doesn’t have a lot of screen time, she makes the most of what she has (and is far better served her than in her recent screen appearances in “New Year’s Eve” and “Dark Shadows”). Wilde drops in and out of the movie as the whims of the screenplay demand, but generates a real chemistry with Pine and underplays a stock “Girlfriend” part to make it seem a little richer than it really is. Mark Duplass has a throwaway role as Frankie’s lovestruck neighbor and Philip Baker Hall has just enough screen time as the late father’s attorney to remind us that Hollywood really needs to use Philip Baker Hall more.
It’s hard to complain about Kurtzman’s instincts in casting the film, it’s just too bad that he, Orci and fellow co-writer Jody Lambert didn’t give the performers less contrived situations to play. The story was supposedly inspired by Kurtzman’s knowledge that his own father had been married before and had a family from that relationship. Kurtzman never knew them as a child, but later met his half-sister randomly at a party. The production notes don’t specify if he spent a week debating about whether or not to tell her they were related or if he was avoiding questioning by government investigators about shady business deals at that time or if his mother had long buried secrets to reveal about the matter, but I’m assuming those are all dramatic flourishes for the screen.
“People Like Us” is a well-intentioned and well-acted movie. Despite an overly aggressive style, its heart is in the right place and it’s not excessively sappy. But the ultimate problem for a movie intent on taking the audience on a tearjerking emotional experience is that there’s little catharsis in something so predictable.
“People Like Us” opens in theaters June 29