Saturday, June 30, 2012

People Like Us

Finding Family, No Matter How Flawed

Elizabeth Banks as Frankie in "People Like Us", directed by Alex Kurtzman. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, June 30, 2012

We can't choose our family but we can choose whether to engage with or seek them out if we have a feeling it is incomplete.  In Alex Kurtzman's drama "People Like Us", which opened in theaters across the U.S. and Canada yesterday, Sam (Chris Pine), a fast-talking New York salesman, is suddenly racing across the country to Los Angeles to attend his estranged father's funeral. 

Sam rarely visits his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) in California but soon realizes his late record-producing father left him an expansive record collection and about $150,000 to his grandson Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario).  That Sam's dad had a grandson is news to Sam, who finds out he has a sister he never knew in Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), an alcoholic bartender (there's a cliché if there ever was one.)  Much of "People Like Us", loosely based on Mr. Kurtzman's personal discovery of family he was unaware of, is built upon awaiting the moment when Frankie will realize that Sam is more than merely a fellow AA member.

"People Like Us" spends inordinate amounts of time drawing out this dramatic tension between Sam and Frankie but despite the strong chemistry between Mr. Pine and the always-excellent Ms. Banks the film meanders and wallows in its melancholy and woe so much it loses shape, perspective and direction.  It's as if Mr. Kurtzman (co-writer of several big-budget features including "Transformers") loses focus as he probes serious subject matter that affects many millions of people the world over.  The film's pace, initially frenetic as Sam sails through lie after lie in his life, slows to a molasses crawl, and only the fine work of young first-timer Michael Hall D'addario as Frankie's son, prevents large chunks of "People Like Us" from being a total snooze fest.  A.R. Rahman's great music score is also a fine benefit to the film.

Sometimes, particularly on intimate personal projects like this one, film directors can be so heavily invested that they are not sufficiently able to force themselves to be discerning enough to make tougher decisions about the scope of a story.  I felt that Mr. Kurtzman, who also wrote the film (with Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert), may have fallen into this trap with "People Like Us".  He has the most sincere of intentions and gets a great performance from Ms. Banks but the results overall show that the pathos that weights this film down makes it an experience that becomes nauseating rather than nourishing. 

There are however, physical and tactile sequences that work quite well -- Sam's immersion in the vast record collection -- showing that the father he never really knew is very present and alive.  One of the few good things about "People Like Us" is that Sam's father is almost always at the edges of the film speaking to the audience and the characters, even though, of course, we never see him.

Every aspect of Mr. Kurtzman's film depicts lies told by its principals.  Lillian (Ms. Pfeiffer) holds secrets of her own but the revelations in the film feel forced and its tone a sledgehammer.  The mood is one-note, the story static and its placement of characters (such as Olivia Wilde as Hannah, Sam's put-upon girlfriend) is problematic, as is the overbearing spiritual twinkle that the film's style flaunts, especially near the end, making for inauthentic, forced theater. 

"People Like Us" should have been one of the year's best films but it is one of the year's worst, simply because, among other reasons, it fails to put on the brakes when it heads down avenues it doesn't sufficiently build or populate.  The material is thinner than it should be, despite the largess of talented performers executing it.  Sam's mentoring of Josh, a sharp-witted and honest pre-teen, is one of the film's few pleasures, and Mr. Hall D'addario and Mr. Pine ("Star Trek" and this year's forgettable "This Means War") are also a good match, giving the film its few strains of much-needed comic relief.

I wish "People Like Us" had been bolder and probed deeper into the complexities of its subject of lost or unknown family.  So many people have family they never knew of, and instead of observing and prolonging the dance Sam has to do before breaking the news to Frankie, Mr. Kurtzman would have been better served looking more at breaking the ice between Sam and Lillian and less at the tension between Sam and Frankie, which is sometimes played for gimmick rather than meaningful discomfort (a scene between them is orchestrated as squirm-inducing voyeurism and spectacle and not mature honest interaction).  Lillian, arguably the film's most significant and key character, sits awkwardly on the film's periphery, and a good performance by Ms. Pfeiffer is wasted.

"People Like Us" deserved a deeper investigation but this overlong film gets mired in its own surface.  When it was over I was relieved, not just because the family I belong to is intact but because Mr. Kurtzman's ordeal of a film, which initially shows promise, had finally expired.

With: Jon Favreau, Philip Baker Hall.

"People Like Us" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language, some drug use and brief sexuality.  The film's running time is one hour and 55 minutes. 

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