‘People Like Us’
Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michael Hall D’Addario, Philip Baker Hall
Rated: PG-13, for language, some drug use and brief sexuality
Runtime: 1 hour,. 55 minutes
Bottom line: A winning family drama
Hollywood seems to finally be getting the message that it’s not only comic book fanboys who like to go to the movies this time of year. This summer, some smaller dramas and comedies are managing to squeeze in among the blockbusters.
The unconventional comedy “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” released last week, and this week we get a heartfelt melodrama.
“People Like Us” is a change of pace for its director and co-writer, Alex Kurtzman. Known for writing and producing Science Fiction actioners like “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” and “Alias,” Kurtzman instead draws on his own life to tell a story about fractured families and long lost half-siblings.
Sam (Chris Pine) learns his estranged father has died but resists going to the funeral, despite the best attempts of his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) to get him there.
They miss the funeral but do arrive at Sam’s house, whereupon Sam’s mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) gives him a well-deserved slap on the face.
Clearly, there is some heavy duty dysfunction going on in this family and within Sam personally.
Even Sam doesn’t yet understand just how deep this dysfunction goes, until his father’s lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) gives him a package his father left for him. It contains $150,000 and a note instructing him to give the money to someone he has never met.
Turns out, the money is intended for a sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and a nephew, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), Sam never knew he had.
Sam makes contact with Frankie and Josh and begins to build a relationship with them — only he can’t bring himself to tell them his real identity.
We know early on that the big reveal will eventually happen, and the movie would have been much better had it happened sooner rather than later.
The middle half becomes the very definition of cloying. Sam waits a long, long time to tell Frankie who he really is. Instead, Sam takes Frankie and Josh on quasi-dates. They eat tacos, fold laundry, drive up the coast to eat crab and watch the sunset, etc.
Frankie continues to reveal more and more of her past to Sam, who consistently responds with some spirit-lifting compliment or nugget of wisdom.
It’s hard to understand Kurtzman’s choice here. It seems he wanted to hold off the big confrontation for as long as possible so it would have huge impact. And it does. When we finally reach the scene when all truth is revealed, it’s a doozy.
However, the whole time Sam is hanging out with Frankie in order to get to know his long lost sister, Frankie believes that it’s a romantic relationship. The whole thing just becomes gross for a while, which not only undermines the drama Kurtzman is trying to create, but also makes us like Sam less and less.
Watching the second act is like watching some of the Superman or Batman movies. We’re sitting there thinking, “Just tell her who you are, for crying out loud!” Or, “Can’t you see that Clark Kent is Superman? Do the glasses really disguise him so much?”
If Sam had told Frankie earlier, we could have spent more time watching them coming to terms with this complex situation and building a real sibling relationship. Because that’s what works best in “People Like Us.”
During the third act, Sam, Frankie and Lillian all start actually dealing with things rather than denying them, which builds to an undeniably moving climax.
“People Like Us” is definitely flawed, but’s also the kind of earnest movie that’s nearly impossible to dislike. A lot of care and craft went into this movie.
It’s also obvious that the story comes from a very personal place for Kurtzman, and the cast nails each scene, even the ones we could probably do without.
Far from perfect, “People Like Us” will satisfy those who prefer emotional rather than computer-generated fireworks.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.