People Like Us B
Alex Kurtzman, better known as writer of such big commercial pictures as “Transformers” and “Star Trek,” makes an honorable feature debut as director and co-writer of “People Like Us,” a siblings serio comedy, well acted by Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks.
Though the tale is overly calculated, down to using the most obvious visual montages and musical cues,
“People Like Us” has any good and touching moments that will resonate with both male and female viewers seeking a more mature fare than is the norm in the summer season.
World premiering at the Los Angeles Film Fest, the mid-level, mid-range, touchy-feely “People Like Us” will be released by DreamWorks/Disney June 29 as counterprogramming to summer’s top guns.
One of the pleasures of being a working film critic for a long time is seeing screen performers and movie stars hone their skills and develop as actors. Such was the case of George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the 1990s, and now it’s the turn of Chris Pine, a handsome and gifted actor, largely associated until now with actioners (“Star Trek”), most recently opposite Denzel Washington.
Ditto for Elizabeth Banks, a likeable performer, better known for comedies and lighter fare. Both Pine and Banks get to stretch, as they say in acting, and show sides f their talents we have not seen before. That they do it at the height of the summer season is all the more rewarding.
The secondary cast, including Olivia Wilde, Michael Hall D’Addario, Philip Baker Hall, Mark Duplass and Michelle Pfeiffer, is equally impressive and Kurtzman should be commended for coaxing great work from each member of the considerably large ensemble.
Inspired by actual events, the tale is co-written by Kurtzman, his old reliable partner Roberto Orci, and Jody Lambert, a crucial contributor to a saga that tries to combine and to balance male and female perspectives.
When first met, Sam (Pine), an irresponsible twenty-something, fast-talking salesman, has a bad day, to say the least. He learns that his latest deal has collapsed as a result of screwing up to the point where his boss (Jon Favreau) threatens to fire him as the Federal Trade Commission gets on their case. Worse yet, he finds out that his estranged father had suddenly died.
Against his wishes, Sam is called home, where he must put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with the rest of the estranged family. In the course of fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Sam uncovers a startling secret, namely, that he has a 30-year-old sister named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) of whom he was unaware.
It’s the kind of fateful discovery and dramatic realization that can change one’s life. And indeed, as the relationship between Sam and Frankie develops, Sam is forced to rethink every element of his large family, and in the process, re-examine his own life choices thus far—and his future.
When writer-director Kurtzman was young, he knew that his father had been married before and had two other children. Due to distance and age difference (about 15 years), the two clans lived their lives separately and never even met.
This factual detail is credited with germinating a rather personal and intimate movie that revolves around one central question: What would have happened if he had actually met his half-brother or sister? Full of surprises, “reality” gets better: In a serendipitous moment, Kurtzman met his half-sister at a party that very same day.
The risk of writing such a conceptual picture is that it would become too schematic and manipulative in its plotting, and the filmmakers don’t fully overcome these problems. Even so, they were shrewd enough to realize that, in order to ring true and authentic, the tale had to be very specific in all its details, from the big ones to the smallest ones.
In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Sam reads the set of rules that his father had hanging on the wall of his study, and then passes them down to his nephew Josh. This ritual (rite of passage) is Sam’s way of connecting his deceased father to the new generation of Harpers, and also his way of forgiving his father, Jerry. In doing so, he is introducing Jerry to his grandson, passing down the little piece of love he remembers to the next generation, knowing that the grandson will pass it along to his children.
Looking amazingly beautiful for her age, Michelle Pfeiffer nails the part of Lillian, Sam’s widowed mother, in a few scenes. She also brings out the best in Pine in their scenes together. Mother and son have many things in common: They are shut down from each other and from themselves. In very different ways, they have both retreated from feeling and experiencing the real world.
“People Like Us” is not a particularly good movie–it’s harder on the edges but too soft at the center. But with its intimate scale and universal human concerns, it’s refreshing to see a movie that relies on good acting rather than special effects.
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