‘People Like Us’, the latest tearjerker to grace the multiplexes, is the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman, whose previous screenwriting efforts include the first two Transformer films. Those giant chunks of talking metal felt more dimensional than the human characters of this picture. Kurtzman’s intentions are admirable. ‘People Like Us’ has its heart in the right place – though, that may be the only right thing about it.
We are introduced to a fast-talking corporate facilitator, Sam (Chris Pine) who hustles his customers by using inventory overages for bartering purposes. He refers to it as “being on the ground floor of money.” We sense that something is broken inside him. He flies home to Los Angeles for the funeral of his estranged record-producer father. His father’s will stipulates that Sam must deliver $150,000 in cash to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). We then learn that Frankie is the illegitimate daughter of Sam’s hippie father. A simple genealogical tree structure would imply that Frankie is the sister Sam never knew he had. And she has a trouble-making 11 year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) which means Sam also has a nephew. But, Sam is buried in debt – is he going to hand the money over to Frankie? From here, you know where this story of redemption is headed:
1 – The two banterers have a rough start, but slowly begin to bond – Check!
2 – A teary monologue (or maybe two or three) about this now-deceased record producer – Check!
3 – Josh finds a much-needed father figure in Sam – Check!
4 – The best-day-ever montages begin to roll in, one after another – Check!
The plot I’ve described above seems plausible. So, why then does the film feel artificial? Much of it has to do with the characterization. Josh might just be a little too articulate for a kid his age – he has a witty response for any occasion. I could almost smell the workshopping as I was watching this: the intelligence in the characters, the script’s overuse of metaphors (including vinyl records to represent authenticity), the cloying score desperately trying to manipulate me into generating an emotional response at a particular moment, the reliance on several jump cuts to illustrate moments of chaos and character confusion. All it takes is one line of dialogue to clear up all the confusion – “We are bro and sis.” But, this secret serves as the motor that drives the film. Without it, ‘Films Like This’ would then be a 10-minute short instead of a full-scale dramedy.
There are some nice moments in ‘People Like Us’. It starts off well, and there is some intrigue in discovering how these characters are connected to each other (which I’ve spoiled for you above, oops!). Chris Pyne, and Elizabeth Banks are fine in their roles – they have the ability to act. However, I couldn’t help but feel they needed a better movie to showcase their talents. I think ‘People Like Us’ needed another run through the typewriter, and a less frantic filmmaker behind the camera to make it a satisfying whole. Even though it has the best of intentions, it is ultimately too calculated and artificial for me to recommend. This is Alex Kurtzman’s first film. I think he’ll get it right next time around. QED.
– Jerry Nadarajah