PEOPLE LIKE US
Director: Alex Kurtzman
By Nandini Lal
Boy goes to LA. Check. Boy meets dead dad’s tatty shaving kit (wait, there’s a huge wad of cash inside). Check. Boy meets dramatic irony (oh look, a sexy bar tender who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous). Check. Untrammeled romance and untold riches ought to be the next movie clichés in line, right? Wrong picture. Not even a kiss at the end? Apparently not. Sam and Frankie get major face time over taco date confessionals and laundromat-fueled patchouli memories. Alas, they are not fated to be together. It turns out – bring on the “Ew!”s – they are related to each other. Sam discovers pretty early on that Frankie is the half-sister he never knew he had. And Frankie needs to be told. The problem is, the time is just never right. The big reveal hangs fire as Sam and his mother do some family bonding 101, Frankie runs through AA’s 12 step program, and Sam tells Josh his 6 rules for living.
This soapsy set-up around a secret about to be spilled is played with adroitness and heart by Elizabeth Banks, teenaged Hollywood newbie Michael Hall D’Addario, Michele Pfeiffer and Chris Pine. Besides casting decisions that fit like a glove, Salvatore Totino’s energetic camera work, an intimate understanding of Los Angeles neighborhoods, and the lively (if underused) choice of Slumdog Millionaire’s AR Rahman as music director breathe joy and life into this by-the-numbers melodrama.
People Like Us is based very loosely on the life story of its director, Alex Kurtzman, known mostly for his screenplays for Transformers, Mission Impossible III, and Star Trek – blockbusters that could not be further removed from this story about reunited siblings. This could explain the super sleek big-budget production values, and also why the scenes here hit the ground running like a thriller. Of course, both action and schmaltz appeal to a similar sensibility – both demand a fast pace and broad strokes.
We don’t get a fiercely original plot line or a delicate, leisurely analysis of relationships here. What we do get is a pacy crowd-pleaser with some good acting that slyly reels us in emotionally, against our saner judgment.
Sam (Chris Pyne of Star Trek, Princess Diaries 2) is a sweet-talking salesman and an unholy mess. A dodgy business deal blows up in his face. (Overheated soup tins on a train – don’t ask.) He tries to avoid his estranged music icon dad’s funeral by deliberately missing his flight. We begin to see why his mother Lillian (Michele Pfeiffer) slaps him the minute he reaches Los Angeles. And also why his put-upon girl friend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) leaves in an understandable huff.
Voicemails from the Federal Trade Commission dog our fleeing scofflaw. He needs cash, and fast. He is given $150,000 with terse instructions from his late father to hand over to a certain “Josh”. For a time, he toys with keeping it, jerk that he is.
He finds out that Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) is a smart-ass troubled teen who has just blown up the school pool. A slightly stalker-y Sam follows Josh’s too-fetching-to-look-frazzled mom, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), as she rushes from AA meetings to bar shifts to her son’s therapy sessions. Sam discovers that Frankie is his half-sister, and realizes that his father had wanted him to look after her. He goes into an angry tailspin at the news, but then insinuates himself into her life. Over time, they share bromidey back-stories of fatherly neglect and bad choices. Frankie remains blissfully unaware of Sam’s true identity, which makes his role alternately disarming and disconcerting, given that anyone in his shoes would surely have twigged by now that she could fall for him. He tries to find a way to hand her the money, but is scared of what it will do to their friendship.
Unfortunately, after the stakes are laid on the table, it takes forever for Chris to finally bare his all. Instead, unnecessary twists keep things going at a brisk pace. In an LA that is lovingly captured in scene after scene, Sam plays with vinyl, cancer drugs and a convertible – all belonging to his father.
What keeps Sam’s procrastination from getting too frustrating, ultimately, is some fine emoting. Broadway-bred Michael Hall D’Addario is charmingly bratty as the adolescent Josh. He gets to hog the snappiest one-liners. He even gets to show off his drumming chops – though mostly on crabs and doors. Chris Pine’s handsome-prick looks, no offence, make him credible as a smooth-tongued jerk who needs to do some soul-searching. But it is Elizabeth Banks who doesn’t miss a beat as the gutsy single mom slowly learning to let her guard down. She lends her frames charisma and genuine depth. This is, in many ways, a better role for her than Seth Rogen’s iffy Zack and Miri Make A Porno, and a bigger role than her recent comic turn in Hunger Games. (Or for that matter, her cameos on Spiderman, Seabiscuit, Catch Me If You Can, 40 Year Old Virgin or TV’s 30 Rock.) A nicely ravaged Michele Pfeiffer does well enough as the ageing woman avoiding surgery, the widow reminiscing about her 17 year-old hat-check girl/Joni Mitchell-wannabe self that fell for her older husband, and the mother who must explain to her son why she did what she did. Sam’s accommodating law-student girl friend, Hannah, is played straight and sweet by Olivia Wilde. Talented filmmaker Mark Duplass’s role as Frankie’s go-to neighbor who is sweet on her is too tiny to remark on, but Jon Favreau shines in a quick early scene as Sam’s schmucky boss.
If People Like Us works inspite of its contrivances, it is because of touching and funny performances, and an occasional delving into real insecurities. A man too slick for his own good evolves as he realizes what his half sister went through, mentors her kid, learns to appreciate his wife, and mends bridges with his outwardly cold mother. In the end, how and when the truth is told is not particularly interesting. What is, though, is Sam’s journey as he better understands his late father’s motives and his own selfish impulses.
Nandini Lal is a writer and critic based in Washington, DC.