PEOPLE LIKE US: Watch It At Home – Not The First Movie Like This
Sam Harper (Chris Pine) is a guy we’ve met before. He’s the fast-talking, self-absorbed hustler who gets along in life by sheer nerve, and doesn’t really care about anyone else. He needs to open himself up to the problems of others, learn something about self-sacrifice, and in the process, Become A Better Person. In a sense, you can trace him back to Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge, and certainly to Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. More recently, he’s been, among others, Tom Cruise in Rain Man (Cruise, early in his career, in several movies), Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. (Sometimes he’s even a rom-com woman, like Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama .) He was Ben Affleck’s go-to character for years, until Affleck ran the role into the ground and had to reinvent himself. The point is, if you’re going to build a movie around this guy and his journey to selfless redemption, you’d better come up with some new moves. There’s nothing at all wrong with Pine’s performance in the new PEOPLE LIKE US, which premiered at the LA Film Festival last night before opening in theatres on June 29, but he doesn’t get the material he needs to push past this archetype.
People Like Us marks the directing debut of Alex Kurtzman, who with his writing partner Roberto Orci (the two are joined by Jody Lambert on this script) has been massively successful as a writer/producer of action and science-fiction projects like the Transformer movies, Fringe and the rebooted Star Trek. They know every trick in the current book about how to tell a story on screen, and that works both for and against them in this genre. The movie succeeds, it’s well-paced, it loads the proper lumps into throats and achieves its emotional payoffs (the final scene, even though you can see it coming, is an unstoppable freight train of get-out-the-kleenex culmination). But throughout the entire film, no matter how much emotional tumult Sam goes through, the fashionable amount of stubble on his face stays exactly the same, apparently because there’s literally nothing in his life that can make him neglect his personal grooming. Like him, People Like Us is sometimes all too slick and superficial for its own good.
As in Rain Man, the gimmicky impetus toward Sam’s better-personhood comes through a family death and an inheritance. Sam’s father, a music A&R man and manager with whom he had a distant relationship, has died, and Sam–who’s in danger of being arrested due to some shady business dealings– reluctantly heads home to Los Angeles for the funeral, accompanied by his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde). He wants to get away from the house and his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) as soon as he can, but when he meets with the family lawyer, he learns that his father has left behind a bequest of $150,000–but it’s not the money Sam desperately needs himself, it’s to be passed on to a mysterious boy named Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). When Sam investigates, he discovers that Josh is a nephew Sam never knew he had, the son of a half-sister, Frankie Davis (Elizabeth Banks), whose existence he never even imagined. Sam has to decide whether to give the cash to Frankie and Josh–no one would know if he didn’t–and as he begins to observe them, he inevitably gets involved in their lives.
Frankie and Josh aren’t exactly original characters either. She’s a struggling but spunky bartender who’s in AA (she got sober when she became a mother), and Josh is a precociously bright but troubled kid (he blew up his school’s swimming pool as a science experiment). Because the movie would be over if Sam just said who he really was, even as both start confiding in Sam and trusting him, he remains unable to confess. Instead, Sam listens to Frankie’s problems like a brother (although Frankie, completely unaware of what’s really going on, thinks he’s a prospective boyfriend), while he teaches Josh about music and imparts life lessons. Despite what Kurtzman and his fellow writers seem to think, there’s not a ton of suspense about where Sam will end up.
What saves People Like Us from being a Lifetime movie is the acting. Banks was a terrific choice to play Frankie, her comic spin able to ring changes even on familiar soapy dialogue. She and Pine have a comfortable companionability on screen, which is critical to make the story work. This is Michelle Pfeiffer’s richest part in years–you’d have to go back to White Oleander, a decade ago–and when she finally gets some heavy-duty scenes in the movie’s second half, she hits them out of the park. Pine and young D’Addario are more cosseted by their roles, but people like Jon Favreau (as Sam’s boss), Mark Duplass (as a more suitable potential romantic interest for Frankie) and Philip Baker Hall (as the family lawyer) show up in small roles.
People Like Us has been put together with thorough professionalism. Salvatore Totino’s photography bathes the action in warm, soft light (there’s a lovely image toward the end involving the beam from a home-movie projector), and A.H Rahman’s score hits all the buttons. As befits a story where pop music is key, there’s a strong collection of songs on the soundtrack. The movie makes exceptional use of LA locations, and Ida Random’s production design is believable and detailed.
It’s unusual for a studio to open a soap like People Like Us in late June, when it has to face off against blockbuster event movies (DreamWorks/Disney had a massive success last year with The Help, but that was in mid-August, a very different part of the summer calendar). If the picture can manage to open against Magic Mike and Ted, and then hold on when The Amazing Spider-Man comes to town the following week, it could have a lengthy run, because despite its cliches and superficialities, the movie delivers the emotional satisfactions it promises, and it’s one of the only human-scaled dramas around. If it had only had the nerve to avoid following the patterns of the other movies like it, People could have been even better.