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Non-Review Review: People Like Us

People Like Us has an endearingly earnest premise and a solid enough cast, but it’s let down by clumsy writing and somewhat awkward direction. People Like Us is never sure whether it’s only getting started or nearing an emotional resolution, to the point where it seems like there’s a string of false endings in this under-two-hour feature. Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks make for two endearing leads, but they find themselves struggling against an overly melodramatic script and direction that never seems to entirely trust the cast.

A close shave…

“Inspired by true events,” we’re assured before the film starts, and there is something decidedly and strangely sincere at the heart of People Like Us. Inspired by the family history of writer and director Alex Kurtzman, People Like Us seems to come from a very personal place. It touches on any number of very intimate areas, from grief and insecurity to legacy and long-hidden family secrets. The best moments in the film mine these themes for genuine human drama, allowing the cast to show hints of humanity amid all the whirling camera movements and quick cuts.

Unfortunately, Kurtzman’s screenplay (co-written with Jody Lambert and Roberto Orci) is more interested in telegraphing every emotional beat and wallowing in cheap melodrama. “I can see you’re disappointed,” the family lawyer states when Sam, our protagonist, discovers that his recently-deceased father left him no money in his will. He could be speaking for the audience. We can also see Sam is disappointed. We don’t see it because the screenplay gives Chris Pine the space to showus, but because the script gives us a series of lines pretty much explicitly stating that. And, not only that, it also makes sure that the lawyer explicitly states it, so that it’s sure we picked up on it.

Wilde about one another…

It’s just one exchange, but there are numerous examples throughout the film. The feel somewhat clumsy, and betray a lack of faith in both the audience and the actors delivering the lines. There’s no sense of space in People Like Us, no room for any of the characters to breath. The film has a relatively condensed runtime, and it feels rushed. While it’s great to see Jon Favreau playing an angry executive and Olivia Wilde continues to be an underused young actress, those characters feel somewhat redundant – to the point that characters and the audience are liable to forget that they exist when they wander off-screen.

It’s a credit to Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfieffer that they manage to forge any connection at all with the audience. Pfieffer in particular gets the movie’s most emotionally affecting scene, a testament to an actress who has been largely absent for far too long. Again, Sam’s interactions with his mother are often so trite that they threaten to draw groans from the audience, but Pfieffer makes the most of the material she’s given.

You can take that to the Banks…

Between People Like Us and This Means War, Chris Pine seems to have cornered the market on making potentially creepy characters audience-friendly. When he father asks him to take care of an eleven-year-old kid (and his mother), Sam creepily inserts himself into their family life. There’s a wealth of subtext to this interaction that’s never really addressed, but there’s something inherently creepy and voyeuristic about how Sam manipulates his way into their confidence. If Pine weren’t so boyishly charming, the film would be dead on arrival. He just about manages to keep it on life-support, but barely.

Banks is pretty impressive as Frankie, the mother of the boy that Sam’s father tasked him to protect. Like Pine, Banks has a charm that almost makes Frankie more than an assembled bunch of clichés and familiar plot devices. The script and the direction do Banks even less favours than they do Pine, but she handles herself well. The best sequences between the pair are short and naturalistic, but they are chopped into bits and pieces, overwhelmed by an over-the-top soundtrack and throw together in such a haphazard fashion that the audience never really gets a chance to connect.

Family fun…

The actors who manage to overcome the difficulties inherent in the script find themselves sabotaged in the editing suite. Kurtzman famously helped write the Transformers films for Michael Bay, and he seems to have picked up a few of Bay’s tics and quirks. I actually don’t instinctively hate Bay. I think The Rock remains one of the finest action films of the nineties, and a solid example of how Bay’s style is suited to a particular sort of film, with the right supporting talent. (I will concede that the last decade has not been kind to Bay – creatively, at least.)

Kurtzman seems to apply Bay’s style to an intimate family drama, something that I actually admire, in a strange way. It’s not how many other directors would have structured certain sequences or filmed certain moments, and I think that there’s at least a measure of inventiveness in applying these techniques to a film with which you wouldn’t associate them. Of course, there’s a good reason that most intimate dramas don’t feature quick cuts and constantly moving cameras, and the novelty of the approach is undercut by how thoroughly it undermines any genuine sense of drama.

Raising the bar…

Kurtzman seems unable to sit still. The camera is constantly panning or zooming. Even in dialogue-heavy sequences, it seems unable to hold focus on the characters. If Kurtzman can’t seem to focus his attention on his cast, why should we? There are lots of chops and cuts and edits, and Kurtzman seems almost afraid to let a shot linger or to give his actors room to emote. Consider the sequence where Sam follows Frankie downtown, which is played as a low-rent car chase, or the bit where Sam rifles through Frankie’s son’s school bag.

Rather than using these moments to build Sam’s character, the film treats them as plot points to be checked off, one at a time. Cut to bag opening. Cut to book. Cut to leafing through book. Cut to putting book back in bag. Cut to zipping up bag. The sequence would be much more effective we actually saw Sam exploring the bag, or making sense of the contents of the notebook, or even hesitating at the invasion of privacy. Instead, the character moment is lost amid a rapid-fire sequence of cuts.

Uncle Sam…

The script also suffers a bit from this need for scale and movement. Sam’s family drama apparently isn’t quite intense enough for the film, so we end up with a real!stakes! drama including one aspect of Sam’s job that goes horribly wrong. It isn’t enough that sam’s personal life might be ruined, the film throws in the suggestion of bankruptcy or imprisonment as a means of heightening the tension. This is a dodgy enough concept to begin with, but the film then seems to forget this plot point towards the climax of the film, and the consequences of all that stuff are casually brushed over.

People Like Us has some solid ingredients. It has an interesting premise. It has a great cast. Unfortunately, it never develops either of those assets, instead favouring hokey melodrama and intrusive direction over solid character work and engaging drama.

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