Review: People Like Us
PLOT: Sam is having a really bad day. He made a major mistake at work which could cost him his job and more, and he also found out the father he left behind has died. When he goes back home to take care of his father’s estate and help his grieving mother, he finds that he has a half-sister he never knew he had. He is then asked to deliver to the woman he doesn’t know and her troubled son one-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, money which he himself is in serious need of. Decisions, decisions…!
The feature film debut of STAR TREK and TRANSFORMERS co-writer is certainly a departure for the filmmaker. Along with partner Roberto Orci (and Jody Lambert) who co-wrote this family drama, Alex Kurtzman has created what may be one of the most touching movies of the year. While PEOPLE LIKE US is certainly a soap opera, it is also a smartly written and beautifully acted one at that. Sure this story would’ve been ideal for a very special episode of “Oprah,” yet you can’t help but feel a connection to the players involved.
Chris Pine plays Sam, a businessman working for an overstock company that deals in trade. After making a mistake involving the transportation of product, he is faced with possible legal repercussions. With the seriousness of the situation he fails to notice that his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) has called him several times. It isn’t until he arrives home to his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) when he realizes that his father has died. When Sam and Hannah go back to his hometown in Los Angeles to look after his mother and deal with his father’s estate, they miss the funeral leaving Lillian to mourn alone. Things get even more complicated when the family lawyer gives Sam a large sum of money to give to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her eleven-year-old son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario).
We soon find that Frankie is Sam’s half-sister, one that he had never known until he unwittingly finds out while following her. In one particularly touching monologue, Banks opens up during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting admitting that she didn’t exist to her father. She finds this out after reading his obituary in the paper and not finding any mention of her or her mother. Dear old dad - played in flashbacks and photographs by Dean Chekvala – was a successful music manager who apparently couldn’t be bothered to live with his mistakes, and Frankie happened to be one of them. At least that is how it appears. Frankie is so beautifully played by Banks that she comes across as extremely sympathetic, a single mother trying to give her son a good life. She works hard yet Josh is clearly frustrated and cannot cope with the situation of not having his mother (or a father) around.
Chris Pine has the uncanny ability to portray a selfish jerk yet still make him a sympathetic one. Sam is constantly making poor decisions and lying to those around him, but somehow it is forgivable due to his charismatic persona. The same thing can be said with Pfeiffer. Lillian is manipulative and uses guilt to her advantage, yet there is a real sense of sadness underneath her older yet incredibly stunning appearance. She and Pine make for a compelling mother and son – much like Banks and D’Addario. Even if the story itself becomes a tad bit formulaic it is told in an honest way that you can’t help but be moved by. However a couple of the sub-plots come across as forced without much of an impact, especially one regarding Lillian’s health. Talk about manipulation… although I suppose it shows her as a much stronger person than you’d expect her to be.
While the theme may seem unusual for Kurtzman considering his resume, he handles the material well. Shot in Los Angeles, he uses the city as a backdrop making this feel like a grand Hollywood story, in a good way. Seeing familiar places like Henry’s Tacos and Neptune’s Net gave the film an honest to goodness feel of authenticity. It also helped that the look of the film is very elegant yet a little bit nostalgic in dealing with the families past and the memories conjured. Kurtzman could have easily gone a grittier and more intimate direction which would have been much more obvious. His was a more daring approach that uses the City of Angels perfectly.
Soap opera or not, PEOPLE LIKE US is an affecting and well told story of family and forgiveness. It features terrific performances and also a surprising and inspired feature film debut for Kurtzman. I could have done without a couple of the story-lines and Olivia Wilde seemed slightly unnecessary – she does however make the most of it - but this is still a story that many will find an emotional bond with. PEOPLE LIKE US is a warm and heartfelt family drama that is sure to resonate with anybody who has ever lost someone they loved.