*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 06/22/12 ***
I watch a lot of “bad” movies. This is mostly my choice, as I enjoy kitsch, sleaze, schlock, shock and many other forms of “garbage” that folks usually thumb their noses at. It’s a guilty pleasure that’s healthier than, say, binging on junk food – though that’s easily my second vice. But if you’ve eaten nothing but Doritos and ice cream for the last two days, your body craves a nice clean salad. Well, on June 29th, Dreamworks serves up People Like Us, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s nutrient dense offering that had me leaving the theater feeling nourished and satisfied. And to be perfectly honest, I’m kind of surprised.
Now I like dramas well enough, but when centered around families, I feel they can be a bit grating. Filmmakers tend to play up quirks and eccentricities that are meant to make the audience relate better to the characters. For example, the dirty talking old man/old woman. I’ll take some flak for this, but look at Little Miss Sunshine. In my opinion one of the most overrated films of all time. Quirky characters, awkward pacing meant to feel “natural”… Alan Arkin as the dirty talking old man. Yes, all families have problems, but anything that’s about a bunch of people moping around (usually punctuated by an emo teenager on meds) pulls me out right away. If I wanted a depressing freak show, I’d go to the Shrine Circus. Fortunately People Like Us doesn’t go in that direction. It gives us real people dealing with an unexpected dilemma. The characters are nuanced (read: not over-the-top and believable) and all have very real and very big things at stake. This makes for a far more relatable and realistic film than, say, Dan in Real Life or Garden State. I don’t mean to pick on these titles specifically and I’m probably doing People a huge disservice by even mentioning them, but I feel to some degree it may unfairly be lumped into the same catagory based on the marketing alone.
The film revolves around Sam (Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) a twenty-something, NY salesman who finds his career crumbling after messing up a deal and being hit with an FTC complaint. Oh yeah… and his Dad just died. Strangely enough, Sam doesn’t seem to care that much and despite trying to weasel his way out of attending the funeral, he flies home to LA with his smart, beautiful and loving girlfriend Hannah (Tron: Legacy‘s Olivia Wilde). An only child, Sam returns to his estranged mother (the pitch-perfect Michelle Pfeiffer) and it’s just a matter of time before the two begin to clash. Sam resents his parents, having felt ignored and undefended by them, and Hannah begins to see a different, colder side to the man she thought she knew. Soon their relationship is on the rocks, as well. As he reluctantly fulfills his father’s final wishes, Sam receives a shaving kit containing $150,000 and one life-changing task: to deliver the cash to the half-sister he never knew he had. Covertly, he begins to build a relationship with this woman, Frankie (Zack and Miri Make a Porno‘s Elizabeth Banks) and his young nephew, always careful to keep the devastating news from his mother. He soon discovers her life and relationship with their father was as bad or worse than his own – and she’s always been resentful of her dad’s “other family”. Simultaneously afraid of both losing her and fully accepting her, Sam can’t figure out how to break the news of their relation. Things get more complex as Frankie opens up more and more, eventually falling for the man who is her brother. To top it all off, Sam learns that if he returns to the east coast, he’ll be hit with a subpoena courtesy of the FTC. Will he be able to man up and face his problems or go down running from them?
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are best known for writing the Star Trek reboot as well as other big budget action fare such as Transformers and Cowboys and Aliens. So it’s a shock to see that they teamed up with writer friend Jody Lambert (TV’s Dirty Sexy Money) to come up with a character-driven drama/comedy for Kurtzman’s directorial debut. Inspired by the real events of Kurtzman meeting his half-sister for the first time as a grown adult, the script is incredibly solid. The only minor flaw I found was in the relationship between Sam and Hannah. I felt she was a little quick to leave him in his time of need and it was just as quickly resolved upon her return. Again, it’s minor. She’s very important to the story and Sam’s growth as a person, but it does take a backseat to everything else. Hannah may be the family of his future, but in order to get to her he has to make amends with the past of his family. This is very much the Cameron Crowe movie Cameron Crowe never made. It’s almost as if the scribes took a master class in Crowe-ology and this was their final thesis. The deceased worked in the music industry, so there’s the classic rock soundtrack. Precocious youth? Present in the form of a troubled nephew. Catchy line used at the pinnacle of the character’s development? “Lean into it.” They also nail that delicate blend-in of comedy to temper out the heavier elements. I think Crowe is still the master of this type of film, but pretender to the throne Kurtzman’s not. There’s a slight twist wrapping up the end of the movie that literally brought the house to tears and I’m not sure I’ve seen/felt that in a long, long time.
The acting is superb. When I say superb, I actually mean Oscar-worthy, particularly for Michelle Pfeiffer. Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks are stellar, but I’ll go on record right now: you’ll see Pfeiffer get a Best Supporting Actress nod come January. The pacing is perfect and unlike The Lucky One, I felt for Sam and understood why he keeps his secret. There is real consequence, not just “we don’t have a story if she finds out.” This is a true testament to Pine and Banks really being able to sell their relationship. It’s never Marty McFly in the car with his Mom, but a genuine connection that’s both happy and heartbreaking as it becomes obvious that Frankie needs this man in her life – just not in the way she thinks. The material allows both actors to showcase an emotional depth that exceeds anything they’ve done to date and will certainly open more doors for their careers.
People Like Us is just a terrific film on every level. I know we’re entering the box office blockbuster season and this film is likely to get buried beneath a pile of guns, webs, bats and animated… stuff, but make a point of catching this surprising little gem. Everyone will see Star Trek 2 next year but Kurtzman and Orci really ought to be rewarded for cooking up such a heartfelt people picture. Pink Floyd once asked “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?!” Well, here it is: Now chow down before indulging in the glorious confections of Summer cinema.