REVIEW: Don't Be Fooled By the Lousy Title! Pine, Banks and Pfeiffer Deliver in People Like Us
To say there’s nothing on the contemporary movie landscape like Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us is to suggest that the picture is a groundbreaking work with special effects unlike any we’ve ever seen, that it’s fresh and original in its use of characters or situations from old movies (or even older comic books), that its 3-D wow factor rivals that of Avatar. But People Like Us is something odder: This is a straightforward family comedy-drama, a movie made for adults, and one that actually gives its actors – among them Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer and Philip Baker Hall – something to do. That’s more of a rarity on today’s landscape than it should be.
Twenty or thirty years ago, you might have called a movie like People Like Us pedestrian, something not very special – it isn’t, for example, nearly as acidic or pointed as Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. And still, People Like Us, despite the fact that it’s been given a title that dooms it to failure (more on that later), seems to be motored by a quiet urgency. The picture gives off the sense that there’s something at stake here, and there is. What big studio wants to bankroll this kind of movie anymore? Who wants to see this sort of thing? It’s all just feelings, and who needs them? We’ve got foreign movies and indie movies for that stuff.
But I love the way People Like Us so defiantly carves a space for itself in a genre that no longer exists, the mainstream fractured-family drama. The picture has flaws: It could have used a great deal of pruning, especially in the last half. But Kurtzman — who co-wrote the script, with Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert — has structured the movie as a gentle mystery, and though it does have a genuine surprise ending, it still allows for the biggest mystery of all: Why do people we love sometimes behave in indefensible ways? People Like Us doesn’t pretend to have the answers; what it does suggest is that there’s honor in handling your own disappointment like a grown-up.
Chris Pine plays Sam, a corporate failure who, as the movie opens, isn’t having a particularly good day. It gets worse when he arrives home and his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), springs some bad news: His father has died suddenly, which means he’ll have to head to Los Angeles from New York right away. Sam’s response to the news is oddly passive; in fact, he seems to want nothing to do with his father, an old-school record producer, who, until he died, was a living legend. And when Hannah finally gets Sam to Los Angeles, his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), greets him with a literal slap in the face. “The linens are in the closet upstairs,” she says icily. She waits a beat and then says, in the same dry, flat voice, “I’m glad you're home.”
It turns out Sam has been estranged from his father — and by association, his mother — for years. His reasons are at first vague, but they become more comprehensible as the movie goes on. Now that the guy’s dead, Sam is at least hoping for some kind of payoff: Instead, his father’s lawyer (played by the always-marvelous Baker Hall) hands him a Dopp kit containing a roll of bills — $150,000, to be exact — and a mysterious instructional note that leads him to the door of a single mom, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and her bright but too-precocious son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario).
If you’ve seen the trailer for People Like Us, you already know the nature of the relationship between Sam and Frankie. That’s a shame – whatever happened to the idea of letting an audience discover a movie for itself ? – but it doesn’t necessarily mar the picture’s modest but potent pleasures. For years Kurtzman and Orci have been writing Hollywood blockbusters, big, fat moneymakers like Transformers, Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. People Like Us is their attempt to make something quieter and more personal, and in places the experiment is wobbly: Kurtzman knows what to put in, but doesn’t always seem to know what to take out, and the score, by A. R. Rahman, is too syrupy for the subtle earth-tremor emotions Kurtzman teases from his actors.
But the performers keep the picture moving, even through its sloggy patches. Sam’s dad has left him no money, but he has bequeathed him a killer record collection: Carefully categorized and shelved, this precious stash of vinyl covers the walls, floor-to-ceiling, of a magical man cave. (Anyone who has ever loved vinyl will sigh at the Ali Baba-ness of it all.) Pine, for such a young actor, has an old-soul kind of face. Sam is closed off at first, and Pine plays that repressed anger as a kind of recessiveness, a retreat into blankness. His dad’s album collection is, at first, a legacy that just pisses him off, chiefly because it’s not money. But later, as he comes to know Josh, and sees both how bright and how lost the kid is, he remembers that music can be a portal into a better world, one that’s somehow easier to cope with. He admonishes Josh against stealing from a local CD shop: “You can’t shoplift from a record store, it’s like kicking a dead man.” And he gives the kid an essential listening list that includes Gang of Four, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and Television. Pine plays Sam as a man who needs to reconnect with his old enthusiasms, his old self, and he has just the right amount of gravity to make that believable. He's got the right degree of surliness, too: There are moments where Sam doesn’t appear to be the nicest guy, and you wonder if his complaints about his father are of the "apple doesn’t fall far from the tree" variety.
Banks, so often a crazy-wonderful presence in the movies, is more grounded than usual here, but she shows more depth, too. And Pfeiffer, looking beautiful in a way that’s believable for her age, is terrific. Pfeiffer embraces rather than recoils from the steeliness of her character, and her fearlessness makes all the difference. Everyone in People Like Us comes through with the goods. Which brings us to our last question: What’s with the movie’s stupid title?
In a recent New York Times article, Stacey Snider, one of the principals at Dreamworks, explained that the title was changed from its original Welcome to People (a reference to a ’70s kids’ pop-psychology record album featured in the film) because, Snider said, “ ‘Welcome to People’ didn’t suggest anything to anyone.” She added, “It told you nothing about the content of the movie, the size of the movie, the genre of the movie.”
So thanks, geniuses, for giving the movie a new title that tells us nothing about anything and which is almost impossible to remember. Who in their right mind would run, not walk, to see a movie called People Like Us? Not people like you and me, that’s for sure. But if there were ever a time to defy a studio’s crap marketing strategy, it’s now. People Like Us is about all the ways in which our parents fail us – and about how one of the loathsome chores of adulthood is having to get over that, and over ourselves. That’s either not a big enough subject to fill a whole movie, or too much ground to cover in one picture. Welcome to people: They’re completely horrible, except when they’re totally awesome.