Alex Kurtzman’s Debut A Bombastic, Exercise in the Unsubtle
With several successful (quality questionable) screenplays under his belt, Alex Kurtzman, the man who co-wrote the latest Star Trek (2009) reboot and, errr, Cowboys and Aliens (2011), got the green-light for his directorial debut, People Like Us, a schmaltzfest torn from the headlines, yet another imagining of one of those based on a true story deals about deliciously entertaining family secrets. The pulpy, sudsy story, which Kurtman also co-wrote, calls for subtlety, an ear that can straddle the thin line between corny sap and emotional turmoil, or at least a hand that can steer the ship away from a manipulative and ruinous Siren’s voice, soothingly crooning that there’s no such thing as overdoing it. Alex Kurtman is not the man for the job. And as if the film’s overblown poster art wasn’t enough to clue you in, this is pure cornball crookery.
We’re introduced to a New York salesman, Sam (Chris Pine), mired in the bartering business, the “new money,”as the biz is defined. And like any other hotshot motor mouth, we learn within minutes that Chris is in hot water, about to face a possible investigation for not following FTC guidelines in a cheap deal he cut buying overstocked food without paying for proper storage. But his scuzzy boss (Jon Favreau) can dig him out if Chris agrees to give up a landslide commission of 80,000 he just made to buy some VIP a new addition for his house. Details don’t really matter here, but Chris wanted that money to dig himself out of debt, which his fiancée, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), about to take the bar exam, knows nothing about. But the bitch of it all is, his distant father just dies on the same day in Los Angeles, and he’s forced to fly to the opposite coast just when he most needs to deal with the big mess he’s gotten himself into. Minor shenanigans on the way there and we meet bitter mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) and dad’s lawyer (Philip Baker Hall), who gives Sam his dad’s old shaving kit which contains 150,000 and instructions for Sam to deliver this to a young boy named Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Sad young man happens to be the 11 year old nephew of Sam, belonging to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a sister he never knew about. Bitter that his father, a failed music producer, only left him a rather extensive record collection, Sam toys with keeping the money for himself, but goes and spies on Frankie and inadvertently develops a loving relationship with the woman and her young son without telling them who he really is. Well, conflict, of course, arises, as he also tries to iron out his relationship with his patient girlfriend and his sad mom. Will he give his sister the money? Will he tell her who he really is? These are the questions that sail the narrative into nearly two hour territory before perfunctorily resolving itself.
Well, it’s certainly hard to find fault with the excellent cast Kurtzman was able to assemble, who are all seemingly trying their best. It’s just that everything is so damn obvious that you could nap through all of it and safely wake at the end knowing very well what transpired to get there. Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks shoulder the brunt of this disorder, and they mostly do alright, exuding a comfortable and mostly comical rapport together. However, scenes involving the 11 year-old played by Michael Hall D’Addario are pure posturing bullshit, the end product of lazy writing. It’s a “child” performance that’s neither realistic nor enjoyable, with D’Addario’s dialogue drenched in forced baritone while he’s styled as if he were Chloe Moretz’s younger sister. And of course, Michelle Pfeiffer is all harried looking throughout most of the film for good reason—she has a last minute secret, too. And here we have Olivia Wilde in yet another role in yet another entirely forgettable film. One gets the sense that she says yes to anything and everything, always a supporting player in projects of questionable quality. Here she gets to be patient and serious, which her hair tells us by being pulled severely back and usually in a bun. Like law students do. Oh yeah, Mark Duplass shows up as Banks’ ogling neighbor, too.
And the story? Well, it’s formulaic melodrama. However, one has to rage against the project because there are some sordid elements that Kurtzman could have played with a bit more. When Wilde is dispatched back to NYC after a lover’s huff, one gets the sense that something strange is just waiting to be revealed in that big house where Pine is now alone with his spidery Pfeiffer mom. However, no go. But even better, we have Banks, a single working mom, obviously falling in love with the man that she has no idea is her brother. In one scene where she goes in for a kiss, the audience recoiled with uncomfortable laughs (her character doesn’t react so politely when she gets hip to the game). If only this had been explored in a more realistic, adult fashion, some of the more humanly sordid aspects of the story, while not saving it from melodrama camp, would have at least made it memorable. Instead, we get a cheesy score that dictates how we should feel at every emotional monologue and teary resolution.
People Like Us is all about unresolved daddy issues it never truly addresses. And who are these “people like us?” Are they the unloved, estranged siblings of broken homes and distant parents, all existing despite their aggravating, unnatural relationship to what is considered the normal, nuclear familial unit? If those are the people we’re talking about, All My Children would’ve been a better title. At one point, Banks relates a sad memory of a meeting with her distant father to Pine, sharing that “All I could think was, do not give this man your tears.” This film doesn’t deserve yours, either.
Reviewed on June 15 at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival – Summer Showcase Programme.