People Like Us is not quite like us, but it is getting there.

People Like Us – 2012

Director Alex Kurtzman
Starring Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jon Favreau, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Hall D’Addario, Mark Duplass
Screenplay Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen, Clayton Townshend

There is a scene near the beginning of People Like Us when we find out about the father of  Sam (Pine) for the first time.  His father, a pioneering producer who missed it big, has been stingy with his affection, his money and his time throughout Sam’s young life.  Now, in a diner, the lawyer for his father gives the son that which does not seem to be right compensation.

“I let your father borrow the suit he was married in,” said the lawyer with the typical low-key brilliance that Philip Baker Hall, “I never saw that suit again.  Then I got the bill for the catering.”

Great, I thought, just like my friend Joey.  Cheap begets cheap, though, and his son, who is running out of money fast, feels a slight relief when he finds rolls of cash inside of a shaving back that he was given in his will.  This relief is offset almost by a note that the money is for a relative he never knew he had.  He meets the mother of this relative, finds that she is on the ledge of alcoholism.  Even so, he might just keep the money.  The movie’s drama is built on that “might.”

Pine tries to put the fun in “messed up,” and I do realize that’s not the right word for the phrase.  His character comes across as a less intense Tom Cruise circa late ’80’s.  He is a smooth operator, but not that smooth.  He practices lying on his mom, which must have been a habit he learned when he was much younger with his Dad.  She never buys it of course, and hardly anyone else does either.  Now he’s being forced to learn, grow, and…eventually hug, I am sure.

He enters the life of his half-sister and nephew peripherally at first.  This is, of course, so he can learn they are wonderful, they can learn he is wonderful, and then everyone can be offended later for a false crisis.  Then the hug, I am sure.

The film treats addiction like a plot point, as there are scenes where one character talks about the struggles and then in later scenes we see another character get hammered, and then, if that were not enough, spend time smoking a “J” with his mother.  This is so the two can get into the deeper levels of communication, which involves more yelling.

Elizabeth Banks’ performance as the sister is slightly more nuanced.  She seems every bit the part of a busy single mom, struggling to control the effects of her past on her present and future. Since her discovery in The 40 Year Old Virgin, her workload has been steady and has improved just as steadily.  The performance is not necessarily Oscar worthy, but she is heading in that direction.

The contrast portrayed between Pine and Banks has a sort of resonance.  One can see the joy that Sam is bringing into the lives of Frankie and her son, but when the gift you bring into a situation is deception, there is not much to build on.  While it is a predictable avenue, Pine, and in particular Bank’s performance give it more heft than one would expect.

As his girlfriend, Hannah, Wilde provides a Greek Chorus type of voice to the person she knows best.  Her moves in the film in the film are a tad unusual for the plot, but more effective than the normal harping one would see in a film like this.

Pfeiffer has a real, ragged look to her.  It’s a look I appreciate.  She is in a new phase of a career which, in the tradition of Searching for Debra Winger, might well be over by now.  I hope she continues to seek out these smaller roles, because even in one ridden with cliche as this one could be, she adds a strength and frailty to them which can only be shown with life experience.  It’s time to have a female Clint Eastwood.

So why did this film tank?  With all the acting prowess of Banks, and to a lesser extent, Pine and Pfeiffer, the creative combination of Orci and Kurtzman, two men behind much of J.J. Abrams best work and a soundtrack by A. R. Rahman that ekes along, gently moving the story at a pace that gives it a subtle strength?  All of this is good, but not great. And a little slow, according to my wife.  It’s as simple as that.

(*** out of *****)

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