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As overcranked as it is — the film is directed as if it were an action drama, with two or three times more cuts than necessary — People Like Us has a persuasive emotional pull at its heart that’s hard to deny. Playing half-siblings with absentee-father issues and major childhood baggage who meet for the first time as adults, Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks make the most of the sort of big-time emoting opportunities not normally available in their more customary action and comedy roles, respectively. This intimate story of troubled young souls would have felt more honest if handled in a simpler, quieter style, which suggests that the influences on first-time director Alex Kurtzman from having worked as a writer and in other ways on Transformers, Alias, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-0 and Cowboys & Aliens likely were more pernicious than beneficial. Still, he knows where the emotional truth lies in this quasi-autobiographical material and is able to deliver it, which should translate into people quite liking this DreamWorks/Touchstone/Disney entry upon its June 29 release.
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“I’m the king of mistakes,” Pine’s Sam Harper admits, and that’s almost an understatement. Kurtzman and his co-screenwriters, regular collaborator Roberto Orci and new one Jody Lambert, paint Sam as so ethically and morally worthless that the prospect of spending two hours with this guy is initially dismaying. Professionally he’s a fast-talking sales guy in New York who so badly screws up one scam that his boss (Jon Favreau, in a bit) threatens to fire him and the Federal Trade Commission gets on their case. When Sam’s father suddenly dies in Los Angeles, the creep deliberately makes himself and his girlfriend Hannah miss the plane back for the funeral (the fact that the latter is played by Olivia Wilde makes Sam seem even more odiously undeserving of sympathy), which p.o.’s his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer). He is bummed to learn that all he’s been bequeathed by his dad, a once-big Hollywood record producer, is a large collection of vinyl.
Rubbing it in further, the dead man has left behind a shaving kit containing $150,000 in bills that Sam is instructed to deliver to a certain L.A. address. Sam confirms his scumbag status by nearly keeping the cash for himself even though it’s earmarked for someone else — a half-sister he never knew about.
Casing her mundane apartment in his dad’s cherry red vintage convertible and stalking her to an AA meeting, Sam learns that Frankie (Banks) works as a bartender and is a single mom with a smart but trouble-prone 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario); she’s got a tough life, worse than his. Among Sam’s many faults is the lack of nerve to inform Frankie who he is and how they’re connected, causing an increasingly irritating charade of Sam befriending Frankie, helping smart-mouthed Josh when he gets into trouble at school and encouraging his musical interests and politely behaving in a way that unintentionally leads Frankie to believe there might be a courtship going on (the fed-up Hannah has conveniently decamped back to New York).
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Putting up with the script’s big contrivance, of Sam’s endlessly avoiding telling Frankie the truth she needs to know, becomes exasperating. But Kurtzman provides just enough solid and real stuff to maintain the interest. The sense of place and credible, lived-in Los Angeles locations is very strong; the neighborhoods — Laurel Canyon, Van Nuys — are spot-on for the important characters, as are the restaurants and commercial establishments they frequent. The contrast between the new hipster L.A. place where Frankie works, the Rooftop Bar of The Standard downtown, and the funkier scene recalled by the dead dad’s old convertible and the LPs Sam totes around, is vivid, as is the desperation of all the characters as they try to stay above water.
A sweetly melancholy backstory belongs to Sam’s mother, a former hat-check girl at the Troubadour and one-time Joni Mitchell wannabe who’s become a lingering ghost of Wonderland Avenue. Limited to playing just angry and distant in the early-going, Pfeiffer ultimately is able to invest her character with poignantly rueful streaks when she shares her inner life with her son.
Of course, the longer Sam waits to let Frankie in on their shared paternity, the worse her reaction is bound to be, so she’s predictably furious when she discovers what he’s been withholding all along. One can feel the gears of the screenwriting calculations turning relentlessly, all timed to pay off in a sentimental denouement that would have been better kept short and sweet.
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Sporting fashionable stubble throughout, even Pine is not charming and good-looking enough to explain why the head-on-her-shoulders Hannah would be with such a chronic screw-up at the outset. But once it becomes clear that Sam has suffered from an absent father nearly as much as Frankie has, and that he’s finally attempting to deal with it, he becomes more comprehensible, if not exactly sympathetic.
Banks is best at revealing Frankie’s psychological shrewdness; by necessity, she’s become a quick read of personalities, hyper-sensitive about people’s motives (especially men’s) and quick to deal with adversity, something with which she’s all too familiar. The daughter of a rock ‘n’ roll groupie, she doesn’t even know who Josh’s father was, but she’s acutely aware that if she lets down her guard, or her resolve, she’s a goner and her son with her. She can be a bit exhausting to be around, but Banks makes a well-individualized character out of a familiar L.A. type.
Some of the music cues sound too much like the needle coming down on just the right cut at just the right time, but the soundtrack represents a dense mix of rock classics and A.R. Rahman’s original score.
Opens: Friday, June 29 (Walt Disney/Touchstone), in Los Angeles Film Festival (Summer Showcase)
Production: K/O Paper Products, DreamWorks, Reliance Entertainment
Cast: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D’Addario, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sara Mornell, Philip Baker Hall
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriters: Alex Kurztman, Roberto Orci, Jody Lambert
Producers: Robert Orci, Bobby Cohen, Clayton Townsend
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Ida Random
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Robert Leighton
Music: A.R. Rahman
PG-13 rating, 114 minutes
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