The summer movie offerings this year have for the most part fallen into two main categories: adaptations or franchise sequels/reboots. It has been a summer ruled by The Avengers, anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises, the return of Men in Black and the failure of Battleship. The films of summer tend toward the big, the bold and the explosive; the more special effects, the better. So it is not necessarily surprising that a smaller character comedy/drama along the lines of People Like Us would get lost in the shuffle. I tend to know about movies long before they see the light of day, but somehow I didn’t even hear about this film’s existence until two weeks ago. It was completely off my radar. It was the first time in a long time that I went into a screening without knowing a lot about what I was going to see.
People Like Us is the story of smooth talker Sam (Chris Pine), who takes short cuts in his personal and professional life, to the point that he may be facing an inquiry from the FTC for his practices. When he receives the call that his estranged father has died, he reluctantly returns home to LA and to face a mother that he hasn’t spoken to in years (Michelle Pfeiffer). When the lawyer contacts Sam about the terms of his father’s will, he is shocked when asked to deliver $150,000 to a single mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her 11 year old son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Sam seeks them both out, without revealing his identity or intentions, and slowly becomes more ingrained in their lives.
The solid acting of the cast overcomes a lot of the shortcomings of the plot and direction. Sam is not written to be a very sympathetic character – he considers keeping the money that he has been charged to deliver and is kind of a jerk– but Pine manages to bring likability and vulnerability to the role. Pine has real chemistry with his co-stars which is essential as much of the story hinges on his developing relationship with Frankie and Josh. Banks gets to flex some of her more dramatic acting muscles as the damaged and struggling Frankie. Frankie has had a tough life and is very reluctant to let anyone in and Banks is able to balance that with the moments when Frankie’s humor is allowed to shine through. Newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario does a fine job as Frankie’s smart but troubled son and manages to give a performance that allows him to deliver some nice one liners without his entire portrayal becoming too cutesy. He and Banks have some nice scenes together. Pfeiffer isn’t given a lot to do, but delivers when called upon in a few emotional scenes in the film. Olivia Wilde is pretty much wasted as Sam’s frustrated girlfriend as is Mark Duplass (The League) in a minor, minor role as Frankie’s neighbor.
The actors definitely make more out of the script that they were given than should be expected; the story line is way too sudsy and overdone. The film would have benefitted from a more focused approach that was simpler and not so saccharine sweet. The plot was a little too contrived for my liking; Sam, inexplicably, continually refuses to tell Frankie who he is and why he is there to the point of utter frustration for the audience. The slightly intoxicated gentleman next to me kept saying “just tell her” throughout the latter part of the film. The longer he withholds this information, the less believable the whole thing becomes. The impending FTC investigation hangs over the proceedings, when it could have easily be partially resolved if Sam would simply answer his phone. There is enough drama to be derived from the central premise to sustain the movie, but the writer apparently comes from the school of thought that “more is more.” There was also some inconsistency in the characterization of Sam’s deceased father, who we never meet on screen. Our only knowledge of him comes from what others have to say about him and I was perfectly OK with the idea that he was a jerk and not very good to the people around him; Pfeiffer tells a story about him that makes him seem particularly cruel and unfeeling. But then the filmmakers couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to try and explain his actions and soften him a bit, which just didn’t feel earned nor did it match what the audience has been lead to believe. I get that people are complicated and nuanced, but this just felt too artificial. And the ending is so sweet that I may have developed diabetes after watching it.
I do think that People Like Us is worth a view and it does provide a nice escape from the bigger budget and louder films that currently dominate the landscape. The actors elevate the film and their performances compensate for the areas where the plot is lacking. For its faults, it is still a nice little film that might have been improved in the hands of a more seasoned writer and director. I can’t say I’d plunk down $10 to have seen this, but I’m glad I took a chance on it even if it wasn’t totally satisfying.
People Like Us opens nationwide on Friday June 29th.