People Like Is

© 2012 Ray Wong

Based partially on writer-director Alex Kurtzman's (Transformers) own experiences, People Like Us is a small, personal drama that is vastly different from Mr. Kurtzman's other more flashy, extravagant offerings.

Sam (Chris Pine) is a slick salesman who seems to have it all: a great career, a fast car, and a hot girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) who is crazy about him. But then things start to unravel for him. First, a mistake at work puts him in a tricky situation in which he has to bribe a government official in time to avert legal action. And that puts him in a great debt. Then he gets the news that his estranged father has died. Suddenly, the emotionally unavailable Sam finds himself unable to handle both crisis.

It turns out he hasn't spoken with his parents for years. In fact, he's so afraid to visit his past that he fakes losing his wallet so he can avoid taking the trip. But he ends up back home in Los Angeles, anyway. He and his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) don't really talk. Worse, he finds out that his late father, famed music producer Jerry (Dean Chekvala) has left $150,000 to Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), the son of Jerry's "other daughter" Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). Tempted to keep the money for himself, Sam can't help but be curious about the half-sister he never knew.

Without telling Frankie who he really is, Sam keeps bumping into her and Josh, and he slips into their lives pretending to be a friend. Soon, Sam finds himself unable to peel himself away from the family he never knows. He adores Josh, a precocious 13-year-old who keeps getting himself into trouble. And he feels an intense connection with Frankie, a recovering alcoholic who is still struggling with the past. How can Sam make it right for her? How can Sam reconcile his past and present? Will Sam do the right thing?

Chris Pine (This Means War) seems to struggle with finding a footing in Hollywood. No, I don't mean he is struggling as a working actor. I mean that other than being a certain Star Fleet captain, Pine hasn't found a character that he can really sink his teeth into. Sam seems like such a rich, complex character, and Pine does an agreeable job. Still, it's not the kind of definitive performance that makes audiences take notice.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Game) is quickly becoming a chameleon. She can do comedy, and she can do outrageous. Here, she plays "down to earth" by portraying a deeply flawed, messed up human being, and her effort pays off.

The supporting cast includes Michael Hall D'Addario (Sinister) as Josh. I find him somewhat annoying, one of those know-it-alls who seem to get on your nerves after a while. Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows) is marvelous as Sam's mother, who is cold and distant on the outside, but soft and hurt inside. Olivia Wilde (In Time) is strong as Sam's independent but supportive girlfriend, and Mark Duplass (My Sister's Sister) has a brief but interesting role as a next-door neighbor.

The screenplay by Kurtzman is rather conventional. Here, we have a cocky protagonist who is dying to learn something about life (but he doesn't know it, yet), a precocious teenager who is just right for the job, and a messed up half-sister who is ready to be rescued. I like the premise very much -- it's something that is built on a true emotions and relationships. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Kurtzman approaches the material like he did with his blockbusters: Let's pile on the conflicts! Let's throw more stuff at the hero and heroine until they break.

Much of that is unnecessary. In fact, the strongest parts of the movie are the quieter, human moments. The scene with Sam and his mother at the park is rather poignant. The relationship between Sam and Hannah seems real. The feeling of loss and confusion with regard to the father are palpable. So it's a shame that Mr. Kurtzman finds it necessary to pile on the characters with conflicting situations. Instead, they dilute the emotions and cheapen the drama. The choices Sam has to make become contrived and forced. If Kurtzman had focused on the relationships and connections instead of the external conflicts, the story would have been much stronger.

As director, Kurtzman does have a good eye for cinematic effects and visuals. There are key scenes that are quite affecting and sensible. I think he has great potential for doing something masterful instead of the money-grabs such as the Transformers franchise.

He's not there yet. People Like Us is a good first effort, however. And I think it's a solid story; it's simply unfortunate that Kurtzman is tinted by the blockbuster moviemaking mentality. I look forward to seeing his next dramatic effort, however -- he has the potential for making a movie that will make people like us proud. 

Stars: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Hall D'Addario, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Distributor: Touchstone
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexual reference
Running Time: 115 minutes 

Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 7
Total - 7.3 out of 10.0 

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