(by Dustin Putman
In a vast departure from his usual screenwriting work with Roberto Orci (2007's "Transformers" and 2009's "Star Trek"), Alex Kurtzman demonstrates that his interests aren't strictly within the sci-fi realm with his directorial debut "People Like Us." First and foremost a character drama - and one that goes to unnecessarily great pains to inform audiences it is "Inspired by True Events" (Kurtzman's own, actually) - the film is very much a tale of two sensibilities. On the one hand, it errs toward contrivance and the sort of prolonged conflicts that drag the story out while frustrating viewers. On the other, it works in spite of its problems due to some fine performances and a bizarre dynamic that very nearly finds romance in a relationship between half-siblings. That latter description is certainly not something one sees every day in their wide-release Hollywood fare. Article continues below
30-year-old Sam Harper (Chris Pine) is a hot-shot corporate barter who gets into some hot water with his boss (Jon Favreau) on the same day he learns his record producer father has passed away. Returning to his hometown of Los Angeles for just the fourth time in twelve years, Sam half-heartedly attempts to reconnect with his fed-up mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), while beginning to shut out girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde). He has plenty of hang-ups with the way his dad parented him, but those are only the tip of the iceberg when he is given $150,000 and a note from his dad asking him to deliver the money to his 11-year-old nephew Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). Learning for the first time that he has a sister named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks)—Josh's mother—Sam secretly tracks her down first at her apartment and then later at an AA meeting. Still undecided about what he is going to do with the money—some lawyers breathing down his neck over a violation of the Trade Commission Act has him especially worried—Sam befriends Frankie and Josh without disclosing his identity. As he comes to terms with this whole other life Sam never knew his father had, Frankie starts to feel something stronger for this new man in her and her son's lives.
In "People Like Us," Sam could argue that he has his reasons for not being up-front and honest with Frankie about his true identity. He's mad at his dad, for one, and might just keep the money as payment for not being given the kind of reliable father he thinks he deserved. On top of that, there is the very real possibility that he's about to be sued and will need all the funds he can get. Deep down inside, though, Sam knows what is right, and that is to honor whatever his parent's last wishes were. As he gets in tighter with Frankie and Josh, his choice to still not come clean with them becomes downright cruel. Even if the viewer strongly disagrees with Sam's choices, however, this is not an overall deal-breaker. Credit screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, and first-timer Jody Lambert for recognizing Sam's mistakes rather than simply dumbing down their narrative as a means of prolonging the running time. When the truth finally comes out, Frankie feels every bit as betrayed by him as she does by her estranged father. The film understands that her emotions are warranted. After all, she's just tried to kiss him for the first time.
The situation Sam finds himself in is complicated, but not impossible to work out. Plot conveniences are too frequent - Frankie gets a call breaking the news to her about her father within seconds of Sam showing up in the window of her apartment, able to eavesdrop on the conversation - and the occasional spare dialogue seems to have come from Clicheville ("I don't even know who you are, Sam," Hannah tells him before returning to the east coast). Furthermore, there are spare overdramatized elements, like Sam's reckless driving when he gets mad, and one of those wise-beyond-his-years movie kids acting out at school because, of course, he yearns for a father figure in his life. Nevertheless, respectable restraint is used in other ways. Frankie, who has been sober for a few years despite keeping up a job as a trendy rooftop cocktail waitress, never returns to the bottle even when temptations grow strong. For Sam's mother Lillian, the discovery that she has heart problems does not lead to tearful hospital bed good-byes, but merely a surgical out-patient procedure.
Chris Pine (2012's "This Means War") might be the most humble of all actors, but like Bradley Cooper, there is a smarmy frat-boy look to his physical features that will make it difficult for him to play nice guys in the future. He can play protagonists who have a lot of personal issues to work out on his way to being a better person (as he does very well here), but it will be a bigger stretch casting him as an instantly identifiable, pure-of-heart everyman. That is not so much the case with the more eclectic Elizabeth Banks, transforming herself this year alone into a psychologist ("Man on a Ledge"), an aging, overly-primped escort ("The Hunger Games"), and a Type-A mommy-to-be ("What to Expect When You're Expecting"). As the tough-edged but aching Frankie, Banks is sometimes astonishing with how much she can impart without vocally disclosing anything. The love and overwhelming belief in her son is what ultimately saved Frankie from a wayward existence, and the viewer can see that. Also able to be seen is the way she starts to look at Sam as they share some tacos, bond at the laundromat, or head out with Josh on an afternoon drive up the coast. Were things different, it would be easy to see these two good, attractive, flawed people falling in love, which makes our knowledge of their true connection all the more uncomfortable. How Banks plays her discovery of the truth - the rawness, the anger, the refusal to give up her dignity - single-handedly lifts the situation above the level of a soap opera.
As Josh, Michael Hall D'Addario delivers a loose, uninhibited, finally touching performance made all the more impressive because it's his first major role in a feature. By comparison, Michelle Pfeiffer (2012's "Dark Shadows") is quite the veteran, and as such, she hasn't been this good in years. Appearing onscreen with very little make-up and often unkempt hair, Pfeiffer's lack of vanity serves her imminently well as Sam's artist mother Lillian, a woman who must live with the tough decisions she had to make in the past in order to keep her family together. Her relationship with Sam, getting to know him all over as an adult after so many years of not being in close contact with him, is handled with a beautifully light touch.
Will Sam be able to make amends with Frankie by the end? And moreover, should she even allow him to? "People Like Us" knows full well how flawed people are and how easy it is to make a wrong step even if one's intentions are earnest. Sometimes, though, when damage is done, it's difficult to reclaim trust. For a film that most viewers should be able to guess where things are going - the narrative beats are very familiar, after all - director Alex Kurtzman has one last trick up his sleeve, a final scene of transcendence that brings Sam, Frankie, and the late father they shared around full circle. Shedding newfound light on the kind of man he was but never dared outwardly reveal, it's a special touch that puts a lasting stamp upon otherwise conventional material. Even in their own way, Sam and Frankie wouldn't be the people they are without him.