Thursday, December 27, 2012

Catching Up: "People Like Us"

 3.5 / 5 

Movie like this used to be commonplace, but have now become so rare that Hollywood studios don't quite know what to do with them -- small family dramas that don't try to do much more than present great emotional discord that needs to be brought into harmony by the final fade-out.  People Like Us was dumped by its studio into the mid-summer fray, and it's a movie that deserved a much better chance to find an audience.

It stars Star Trek's Chris Pine as Sam, a sleazeball of a human being who makes his living in a shady business bartering expired goods.  News of his estranged father's death doesn't exactly endear him to anyone: He goes out of his way to avoid the funeral, leaving his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) sitting alone at the service.  Her friends clear out fast as soon as he walks into her home -- this guy's bad news all around.

But he has reason to be.  Turns out his childhood wasn't exactly storybook, and his late father's attorney literally leaves him holding the bag, a shaving kit stuffed with $150,000 and a note with a name and an address.  Sam's job is to get the cash to the mystery person and, importantly, to "take care of them."

It doesn't take long for Sam to discover a long-buried secret, that his father had a second family and the money is intended for a boy who would be Sam's nephew and his father's grandson.  That means the boy's witty, charming, beautiful is Sam's sister -- and Sam, being something of an emotionally backward scumbag, would sooner keep the money for himself than start digging into this messy affair.

Life, being what it is, has other plans for Sam, and he finds himself embroiled in a family drama that borders on silly soap opera but mostly, and deftly, skirts the theatrics and finds some surprising emotional truths.

Elizabeth Banks plays the sister, Frankie, with an effective blend of integrity and desperation -- she's a woman ill-equipped for life and motherhood, but she knows it.  Pine's Sam sees her potential, and it's interesting to see how naturally People Like Us dips a toe into standard romantic-comedy territory by letting us see the situation through Frankie's eyes.  Both she and her troubled 11-year-old son are falling hopelessly for the smooth-talking Sam, who cowardly refuses to let her in on the truth -- she just sees this handsome, good-hearted man who insinuates his way into her life.

That twist is what makes People Like Us resonate more deeply than a standard-issue rom-com, because it isn't, it just feels like one -- and its filmmakers are fully aware that it is not what it appears to be.  Wisely, they hold off until the last moment to draw it all together.

People Like Us breaks no new ground, but it is a movie filled with compelling, honest performances, and Pine, Banks and Pfeiffer are all genuinely captivating.  Pfeiffer, particularly, shines in an underwritten role that she manages to make feel rich, complex and dimensional.  She's the kind of woman who believes she's free-spirited, honest and open, but she's repressed her own secret so well, when it finally rises up, the reaction is visceral, physical, and Pfeiffer shines in a scene that could have felt wrong in lesser hands.

Everyone in this movie feels exactly right.  The writing is strong, the dialogue sparkles without cloying -- when Sam tells Frankie she's strong, her only response is the natural one: "I don't feel strong."  She feels like she's been doing it wrong, which is funny because her brother would have said, just a few weeks early, that he feels he's been doing it right all this time.  But both of them have wound up here, riding those Gatsby-like boats ceaselessly into the past, striving for that future.  It may not come for either of them, but by the end, if they make mistakes, they've got someone to share them with.

People Like Us is warm, gregarious and genuine.  Coming from the writers of Transformers, Mission: Impossible III and Cowboys & Aliens, that's saying a lot -- turns out that beneath the bombast and visual effects, there's a real, beating heart in Hollywood, even if it seems to be getting smaller and smaller all the time.   

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