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People Like Us

Theatrical Review

Disney/DreamWorks; 115 minutes

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Written by on June 29, 2012 

A character-driven drama is not something many would assume to place in writer Alex Kurtzman‘s wheelhouse. Kurtzman and his writing partner, Roberto Orci, usually churn out rather artificial, set piece-driven, basic-minded blockbusters. As fun as many of them are – The Island, Stark Trek and Mission: Impossible III – there’s a lack of humanity in nearly all of them. It’s refreshing, then, that Kurtzman’s foray into directing, the not-so-subtlely titled People Like Us, contains much of the humanity missing in many of his previous works.

When Sam’s (Chris Pine) distant father dies, he discovers the other life and family another life his father abandoned. In debt and at the risk of losing his job, Sam is asked to deliver $100,000 to the sister he never knew, a barmaid and mother named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). As he starts to get to know his sister, Sam isn’t sure how to tell her the truth.

Teary eyed yet? To no surprise, Kurtzman never shies away from tear-jerking sentimentality. Whether his heart-on-its-sleeve approach succeeds or is simply suffocating will vary amongst viewers.

Sam is a lost and emotionally-distant guy who didn’t know who his father was, and barely knows himself as a result. This is a daddy-issue movie, and more than a few scenes of anger and sadness will hit home for many. On paper, the question of “Why doesn’t he just say he’s her brother?” is scoff-worthy. It would avoid all the drama to come in the film as a result. However, in both an obvious and restrained manner, Kurtzman explains.

Sam and Frankie are not family people. They’re not interested in other “people.” As Frankie tells it, she has no interest in meeting the other family her father made. Sam is a guy whose family has failed him for most of his life, so he’s not the type of guy to jump at the chance to have a sister in his life. Unlike the modern king of sentimentality Cameron Crowe, Kurtzman doesn’t allow Sam and Frankie to remain cheery and upbeat about life, thinking they can overcome all of life’s obstacles with the power of love.They’re flawed, and sometimes in an unlikeable and honest ways.

If anything resembles Kurtzman’s action-oriented features, it’s the camerawork. Early on he has a far too much fun with the camera, obviously trying to set up the smooth and cool world Sam thinks he’s got going for himself. There are plenty of cuts and quick pans that remind us of the Transformers world he helped bring to life. Once the drama starts to pickup, Kurtzman and cinematographer Salvatore Totino slow the camera down, allowing for moments to play out longer.

It’s not the earlier frantic approach Kurtzman employs or A.R. Rahman‘s slightly loud score that keeps People Like Us from becoming a special kind of film. Rather, it’s the ending. Kurtzman never tries to hide the heart strings he’s aiming to pull, and he gets away with all of it early on. When it comes down to the very last scene, the film goes from sincere to manipulative, going for a cheap and unnecessary emotional beat which contradicts what the film is about: Sam and Frankie aren’t trying to find out who their father is, but who they are. It seems as if Kurtzman – and his co-writers, Orci and Jody Lambert – forgot that fact in the final pages, where it truly mattered.

Still, what Kurtzman needs to get right he gets right. People Like Us is a pleasant, sweet and heartwarming surprise with well-played drama and two compelling lead performances. Hopefully we’ll see more good-natured and memorable directorial efforts like this from Kurtzman in the future.

People Like Us is now in wide release.


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