Review: Chris Pine & Elizabeth Banks Make 'People Like Us' Engaging
by Ethan Anderton
June 29, 2012
Audiences usually turn their head at big budget, tentpole, sci-fi projects from writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci like Star Trek, Transformers and Cowboys & Aliens. But film buffs get a little more interested when a duo like this decides to tackle a character based family drama like People Like Us, the feature directorial debut from Kurtzman which he wrote with longtime writing partner Orci and first-time writer Jody Lambert. The grounded story is a welcome departure from robots, aliens and explosions and results in a tale that is melodramatic and a bit cheesy at times, but captivating and even a little touching.
Chris Pine plays Sam, a somewhat shady businessman (or facilitator as he describes it), who, through the convincing of his concerned girlfriend (Olivia Wilde), gets caught up in the complications of his deceased father's estate which has dictated that he hand over $150,000 to Frankie, a sister he never knew existed (Elizabeth Banks), so that her misunderstood teenage son Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) might have the life these neglected siblings never had. Sam has to choose between keeping the money for himself in order to get out of a business deal gone wrong, causing him to potentially lose his job, or being honest, and confronting the family he never knew he had, something that might prove more difficult for Frankie who feels abandoned, and not good enough for their record producing father.
If Cameron Crowe wrote films with a lot more melodrama (We Bought a Zoo notwithstanding), it would be People Like Us. The story is so human and grounded that the conflict of Sam's business deal gone sour and his attempts to get save his career come in a distant second to the family problem on his childhood home's doorstep. Though the tension and suspense are very real, almost uncomfortably so, the drama becomes more awkward as Sam and Frankie's relationship blossoms with the truth still hidden in the past. There's a ticking timebomb here, and it makes some of the more pleasing, entertaining and charming moments difficult to endure because of the punch you know that needs to come by the end. But perhaps this is the intention. If so, Kurtzman has successfully crafted an emotionally charged family drama, the likes of which usually line independent film festivals. At some points it even feels strange that this film isn't another indie gem, and it has an A-list cast like this to bring the story to life.
Pine is fantastic as he struggles to deal with the terms of his deceased father's secret, his neglectful ways that kept him from ever visiting home, causing a rift in his relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer (whose age has helped her fall into this kind of role rather smoothly). It's easy to see Pine as a troubled guy rather than just a Hollywood heartthrob trying hard to be normal. He's charismatic, and that makes his struggle all the more hard to swallow for a sympathetic audience. Banks follows close in his footsteps as a mother just trying her best to raise a mouthy, adolescent son. As an actress, Banks can move flawlessly between drama and comedy, and in a film that has a healthy dose of both, she shines quite brightly. The chemistry between Pine and Banks is so finely tuned, it's not hard to believe they're sibling relationship, but at times, it makes for a strange romantic subtext. However, in their performances, they succeed in bringing a sometimes cheesy script a step above a made-for-TV style and tone
The real problem for People Like Us lies in two areas. First, the film is nearly two hours long, and after awhile, Pine does such a good job of expressing his stress and angst, that some scenes feel repetitive. We can only have so many montages of Sam reflecting on his childhood (though it's set to a great soundtrack that would also make Crowe proud) and building a bond with Frankie and Josh. We get it. The film could easily cut 15 or 20 minutes, and it might pack an even harder emotional punch. Second, the film can be a bit heavyhanded and on the nose at times, attempting to hit various kinds of family drama. From Sam's dive into Josh's therapist's homework assignment (a self-help sort of audio CD called Welcome to People, the original title for the film) to a late subplot about Sam's mother having a heart disease, the film sometimes seems to infuse several family dramas into one single film, and it can be a lot to handle. As mentioned, Pine and Banks help dull that down, but it only works for so long. Essentially the length of the film and the constant heartache make it difficult to endure, no matter how good the cast turned out to be on screen.
But the real takeaway here is that Kurtzman knows how to tell a story about people. Real people. Without the assistance of special effects, and sci-fi plots, Kurtzman, along with his writing partner Orci, he has a knack for some witty dialogue, crafting some genuine relationships between likeable characters, and delivering an original and compelling family drama that, despite the melodramatic low points, still feels fresh. People Like Us is far from perfect, but it's a welcome departure during the summer with an array of sci-fi, special effects driven blockbusters and the like taking over theaters. It's the kind of film that would normally get lost in the shuffle early in the year, but feels cozy as a summer release.
Ethan's Rating: 6.5 out of 10