As a writing-producing duo, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are practically synonymous with big-budget blockbusters. Kurtzman and Orci’s writing and producing credits include the first two entries in the Transformers franchise, Cowboys & Aliens, the Star Trek reboot and next summer’s sequel, and Mission: Impossible III. They’ve profitably ventured into TV too (e.g., Fringe and Hawaii 5-0).
Kurtzman, however, had other, less commercial aspirations. He co-wrote and directed the modestly budgeted People Like Us (formerly Welcome to People), a family comedy-drama starring the rebooted Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Chris Pine. Kurtzman’s Hollywood background allowed him to fill the cast with, among others, Elizabeth Banks, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Taking cues from Barry Levinson’s Oscar-nominated relationship drama, Rain Man, Kurtzman makes Sam (Chris Pine), a salesman, a shallow, egotistical salesman primed to take a big personal and professional fall. He’s good at what he does, but what he does involves gray market goods, a spoiled tomato soup delivery and an FTC investigation that could ruin him and his company. Sam’s impeccable timing (or rather Kurtzman’s melodramatic one) comes to the fore when he learns his estranged father has passed away. Slow to act and react, Sam tries to find an excuse not to attend the funeral, up to and including losing his wallet and ID when he arrives at the airport with his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), for the flight.
Sam and Hannah miss their flight, but eventually arrive in LA in time for the wake. Sam’s reunion with his equally estranged mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), doesn’t go well (she slaps him). A call from his father’s long-time attorney and close personal friend, Ike Rafferty (Philip Baker Hall), sends Sam on the proverbial journey of self-discovery. Rafferty leaves Sam a leather pouch containing $150,000 in cash. It’s not meant for Sam, however. It’s meant for Sam’s hitherto unknown half-sister, single mom, and recovering alcoholic, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and Frankie’s son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Sam’s father abandoned Frankie’s mother, unsurprisingly leading to two damaged adults badly in need of therapy and/or self-help.
Sam’s selfishness leads him to make a perplexing decision: Rather than tell Frankie about their biological connection, he doesn’t. Just one three- to five-minute conversation and People Like Us’ running time would be cut down by at least an hour, but since a feature-length film requires a 90-minute running time, we’re left with a film centered around a Big Secret, the often unpersuasive build-up to the revelation of said Big Secret, and the expected fallout from the revelation of the Big Secret. In short, People Like Us, is built around a melodramatic contrivance better saved (and served) for a daytime soap opera or a long-lost episode of Three’s Company (with fewer laughs, of course).
Keeping the Big Secret unrevealed leads to an uncomfortable plot development, Frankie’s growing attachment, if not attraction, to Sam. While the possibility of an incestuous romantic relationship hovers over People Like Us, Kurtzman’s Hollywood background more than amply suggests he’ll take the easier way out of the narrative conundrum (which he does). Kurtzman, however, succeeds on a smaller scale, in individual, character-revealing moments, specifically scenes between Sam and his mother, Sam and Josh, who he begins to mentor, and at least early on, Sam and Frankie as they trade stories about their flawed father (Frankie believes they’re talking about two different, if similar, men).
Kurtzman is helped tremendously by a singularly strong cast. Better known for her comic or light dramatic roles, Banks deftly handles the dramatic demands of Kurtzman’s screenplay. Pine’s Sam initially looks and sounds like a riff on the arrogant, self-absorbed Kirk character, but Pine adds nuance and depth to Sam that makes him stand apart from Kirk. Kurtzman scored a major coup when he cast Michelle Pfeiffer as Lillian. Their scenes together, while few and far between, resonate with emotional authenticity. Unfortunately, People Like Us sinks under the weight of its central premise, leaving the characters and the actors playing the characters, lost in a faux-indie melodrama.
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