'People Like Us': Summer Human Refreshment
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"People Like Us" is the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (who, alongside Roberto Orci, has written "Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers" and many more). And like many first-time features, it's a little over-directed and shot through with other first-time filmmaker marks and moments. Nonetheless, it succeeds admirably as a well-tuned family drama supported by great, strong performances. And, put more bluntly, in a summer movie season like this one, I'll definitely take the chance to watch human beings over, say, robot doings.
Co-written by Kurtzman and Orci with Jody Lambert, the movie stars Chris Pine as Sam, a shabby East Coast go-getter with a job based in equal parts on hustle and shamelessness. But after a particularly bad day, Sam comes home to his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), who informs him that his father, an L.A. recording industry almost-legend, has died. Sam reluctantly heads back to L.A., where his mourning mom, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is waiting. Sam and his dad had a rough few years, and they're still working themselves out in his head. Complicating matters more is the family lawyer (Philip Baker Hall), giving Sam his father's last bequest, a shaving kit full of $150,000 and instructions to deliver it to the nephew and the half-sister Sam never knew he had.
Sam finds his half-sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a bartender in recovery and a single mom, and his nephew, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), a kid with a smart mind, a wounded-but-good heart and an awful haircut. Sam immediately falls into a dramatic model of behavior best-known from romantic comedy, where simply telling the truth at the outset would have prevented any number of complications, but, as he didn't, the web of white lies and falsehoods he weaves as he keeps interacting with Frankie and Josh simply grows more tangled and sticky. It is, to be sure, a familiar story line, but there's something bruised and unkempt about Pine here that makes it much easier to watch, and, as in his other films, the more you beat Pine up -- physically, emotionally -- the more watchable he gets.
A fellow writer who saw "People Like Us" before me noted how it felt like "Cameron Crowe lite," with its flawed protagonist trying to rediscover his decency in a cold world and an accent on rock 'n' roll as an emotional and cultural touchstone. Considering how Crowe's recent films, like "We Bought a Zoo" and "Elizabethtown," have been outright failures, "Cameron Crowe lite" seems like a preferable state to "Cameron Crowe as of late" by comparison.
And while the film may be over-directed in moments that display the earmarks of a first-time director -- too much reliance on soundtrack selection to speak to emotional tone, a few too many over-thought close-ups and insert-shots -- there are still smart and nice touches here, like a quick shot of plastic wrap going over leftovers to signify the end of a wake, or a sudden fit of passion between Frankie and her neighbor Ted (Mark Duplass). And Banks is superb -- gritty yet glowing, atoning for mistakes she can name and number with hard-earned, sad precision. (There's a scene where -- for lake of a better phrase -- we know what kind of movie Banks is in and she doesn't, and it's fraught with potential Kurtzman does not waste.) D'Addario, ugly hair aside, is also good, even if we don't quite know why his teen is so angry.
Kurtzman -- and, by extension, Orci -- may be trying a little too hard in spots, but they are trying, and stepping out of their crash-boom-'splosion wheelhouse is as risky for them as it is rewarding for the audience. "People Like Us," for its minor flaws, has the major plus of having its heart in the right place, and that alone makes it a sentimental but strongly made standout in a summer otherwise full of superheroes and space aliens.