Trying to resist director Alex Kurtzman’s deeply personal dramedy film — People Like Us — is an exercise in futility. Oh trust me, I tried my best to rebel against the oozing melodrama, the sappy familial bonds that the characters so desperately desire, and the lines of dialogue that teetered on the brink of cliché yet somehow remained firmly in the realm of originality. But in the end, every component of this film won me over despite all the technical flaws, despite the “too real or too unreal” moments, and despite Olivia Wilde’s total insignificance to the narrative. I have to credit the dazzling cast in this regard. Placing incredibly likeable and charming actors into complicated, dark, and deeply flawed roles was either a stroke of genius on the part of Kurtzman or careful manipulation. I want to believe the former, especially since Kurtzman has such a personal attachment to this film — this story greatly reflects his own experience of wondering what his father’s first family was like and then getting the opportunity to find out through a chance encounter. People Like Us doesn’t pretend to be anything less than a go-for-broke tearjerker, and that unabashed tone that the film streamlines over its duration is partly why I cannot fully discount its significance to the “dysfunctional family” brand of storytelling.
People Like Us begins by introducing us to a sharply suited, arrogantly strident persona of a salesman named Sam Harper (Chris Pine), a springy twenty-something who derives so much pleasure out of business transactions and brokerages that they become his own version of crack cocaine. Chris Pine instantly brands his character of Sam as one who thrives off of self-absorption in order to mask what secrets and worlds of hurt lie beneath. The finely edited and photographed opening sequence greatly reminded me of the fervor and excitement that Cameron Crowe brought to Jerry Maguire’s office/cubicle scenes. Any minute I was expecting Sam to shout, “Show me the money” to his business partner Jim (Jon Favreau). Just when we expect People Like Us to continue on in its springboard mattress manner, tragedy occurs. After Sam arrives home from work one evening, his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) consoles him while sharing the sad news that his father has just passed away. Sam’s response — “What’s for dinner?” Clearly, Sam feels no remorse by the news of his father’s passing, and all we can do is wonder why. The film’s shift in tone, from high-energy frenzy to melancholic realism, finely mirrors the change in location. Harper leaves behind New York City, a place that distracts with its speed and bustling activity, and heads home to Los Angeles, his place of birth that is a bit slower, a bit more downtrodden, with problems aplenty but still home nonetheless. When an attempt at homecoming sabotage goes wrong, Sam finds himself back in his old house, facing a mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) who can only look at him with anger and hurt by his long absence.
Apparently, Sam has been estranged from his family for quite some time. He detests his father for constantly ignoring him throughout his childhood, choosing instead to pursue a career as a musician rather than attending to his parental duties. To make matters worse, Sam’s mother Lillian defends his father at every turn, even going as far as to slap Sam when he speaks ill of his dad. Some of the anger seems so forced before the context is revealed that the screenplay often plays its hand too forcefully before it should. I appreciate the immediate build-up of tension, but I do question the way in which it’s executed. Olivia Wilde’s character, Hannah, stands by looking just as confused and uncomfortable as the rest of us watching the family drama play out. Sam and Lillian are both so stubborn when it comes to finding common ground and being civil that their scenes become the most claustrophobic and unpleasant to watch. I imagine this is what writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jody Lambert wanted us to feel, but the handling of these tense-filled scenes actually had me harboring a disdain for Lillian. Michelle Pfeiffer does an incredible job playing up Lillian’s sorrow and fragility, but she never truly becomes sympathetic as a character. It’s Pfieffer who is the charmer, not the character she inhabits. Throughout People Like Us, I never entirely understood why Lillian remains so defensive of Sam’s dad and holds him in such high regard. Lillian gives incredible monologues that ultimately prove fruitless, leaving you scratching your head as to why she loved who she loved. As a physically and emotionally demanding role, Michelle Pfeiffer nails Lillian, but I wouldn’t proclaim this role as one of Pfieffer’s greatest or most memorable. However, I do love the way that Lillian seems to absorb her house as part of her flesh and blood. Her hermit-like attachment to the Harper residence is painfully real for someone in mourning, and made the house a sub-character of its own.
After Sam meets with his father’s closest lawyer Rafferty (Phillip Baker Hall), he discovers a note that his father left inside his shaving bag — the note requests that Sam give the $150,000 in the bag to his grandson, Joshua. To Sam’s surprise, his father had another daughter from a previous relationship but had abandoned her so he could start a new family with Lillian. Sam greedily desires to take the cash for himself and head back to New York — where his business dealings are quickly falling apart courtesy of a Federal Trade Commission investigation — but his curiosity about his newly-discovered sister and nephew hold him back from any nefarious course of action. Sam simply wants to relate to another human being with regards to the hurt and pain that his father caused. No one can sympathize more so with Sam’s feelings than his sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom who trusts absolutely no one, least of all unloving men. Frankie and her son Joshua (Michael Hall D’Addario) are the strongest written characters in People Like Us because their humor and inner strength overrides all their flaws. Shunned by society at large — Joshua is expelled for blowing up a pool and Frankie is fired from sit-ins during Joshua’s psych sessions — this mother and son team are literally two against the world. D’Addario brings just the right amount of inner youthful rage to reflect his difficult upbringing. He never falls into petulant and annoying territory, and seems to get the wittiest lines in the film, delivering them superbly I might add. D’Addario doesn’t plays the emotion too intensely; he reacts like any normal kid would act — a smart aleck response at the ready, sometimes upgraded to genuine rage when the adults mentally aggrieve. Boy, do they ever!
Elizabeth Banks…where did you come from? Without a doubt in my mind, Elizabeth Banks delivers career-best work as the troubled Frankie in People Like Us. Depending on how Dreamworks™ campaigns her (I believe they will), Banks could be up for a “Best Supporting Actress” or “Best Actress” Oscar™ nomination for this film if the stars align. Every scene she is in, Banks holds our attention infinitesimally. Whether she is deflecting her anger with humor and a no-nonsense punchline, or breaking our hearts with the slow unveiling of her childhood past, there isn’t a moment that passes in People Like Us where Banks isn’t anything less than superlative. I love the way her character to reacts to each situation presented to her. She embraces her flaws but never succumbs to their weight, and rides on through the film with gusto and grit. Frankie is so guarded with her feelings and those of her son that she refuses to let anyone get too close and destroy what little happiness she has managed to salvage after her father abandoned her for his other family. This is why Sam’s entrance into her life seems so shaky and difficult to see unfold. Sam’s withholding of his secretive ties to Frankie could frustrate many viewers, and for awhile I thought the narrative might crush under such circumvention, but somehow it all holds together.
Pine and Banks have a remarkable chemistry that works so well with this story. They are drawn to one another, but in a very innocent and platonic type of way. Because Frankie has no idea that Sam is her half-brother, things do, however, get a little complicated. Despite Sam’s best effort to deny a romance between the two of them, Frankie cannot help but be drawn to Sam. He’s the guiding light and noble presence she has long hoped to see in a man, but it’s unclear to Frankie whether Sam’s kind attentiveness towards her and Joshua is a yearning for her heart. Much will be said about this narrative and its “incest” leanings, but you have to see the way Kurtzman organically lets his story unfold before you make any kind of judgement. Sam’s intentions are so different than what Frankie has come to expect from a man that it naturally surprises her and makes her hopeful that a relationship between the two could come to fruition. I completely get that, and to some odd degree, I don’t hold very much contempt towards Sam for dragging out his secret so long. Maybe it’s that Chris Pine is such a charming and affable actor that we can easily forgive him for his faulty judgement and irrational decision-making. If Chris Pine were say…Paul Bettany, would we feel as much pity and sympathy for Sam’s character? Probably not, and that is somewhat of a slight against the screenplay, but as I mentioned earlier, the casting overcomes its flawed and unlikeable characters. As much as I wanted to groan every time Sam refused to reveal the truth to Frankie, I couldn’t help but love the pair’s interplay of dialogue.
I wouldn’t say the screenplay is without its hiccups — some lines are truly cringe-worthy (“I’m all chickened out” being one that stands in my mind) — but certain dialogue scenes rise above their over-sentimentality, truly stunning in the process. My favorite moment in People Like Us is the laundromat scene involving Frankie and Sam. I won’t ruin it for those who have yet to see the film, but suffice it to say that Kurtzman, Orci, and Lambert all authenticate their writing chops in this scene. As for Elizabeth Banks, this is the clip I would submit for Oscar™ consideration. Superbly acted, Elizabeth Banks delivers an emotional monologue that leaves no eye dry. Her range as an actress, roaming from comedy to eccentricity to heavy drama, is of undeniable worth for any film director. Elizabeth Banks has always been on my radar, but now both eyebrows have raised. She is the heart and soul of the film, and any issues with the screenplay instantly disappear when she delivers its dialogue.
In all, People Like Us has its noticeable flaws, primarily at the beginning where the script seems a bit too manic and overly-conscious of itself. After we meet Frankie and Joshua, the film is much more digestible because the characters written are so fascinating. Kurtzman has such a complete mastery over Sam and Frankie — two individuals who greatly connect to his own experience of familial longing — that one cannot help but root for their unification of happiness. Chris Pine delivers a surprisingly complex turn as Sam, but his movie-star presence and likability deliver more sympathy to a character who isn’t always deserving of it. Elizabeth Banks’ Frankie is perhaps the one character who is as greatly written as she is portrayed. Frankie’s flaws as a person, as a mom, and as a lover are so understandable because of the childhood trauma she tragically endured. I can understand why Frankie holds such anger toward her father, but I wish the film dug deeper into why Sam despised his father with as much passion. You don’t really understand why, from Sam’s perspective, his father was such a disappointment as a parent. Other than a few gripes I just shared, People Like Us is a good family-drama film that might even shine brighter the more I revisit it. I fought against this melodramatic narrative as much as I could, with flawed characters at its center, but somehow Sam and Frankie totally enraptured my emotions. I cared too much about them to ignore this film. Like its title suggests, flawed is immeasurably splendid in People Like Us.