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People Like Us

July 1, 2012
People Like Us

Why do I go to movies that appear mediocre at best? because once in a while I’m caught by surprise. People Like Us promises a simple popcorn drama with two romantic-comedy leads in a non-romantic pairing. What it delivers is a reminder of the difference the execution makes in the quality of the finished movie. A middling premise can become a surprisingly effective film.

To the premise: Sam (Chris Pine) is a fast-talking trader in trouble with what seems to be the only prosecutor at the Federal Trade Commission actually going after anyone. The death of his estranged father — a minor music mogul back in Los Angeles — could help things out. And indeed, after arriving at his parents’ Laurel Canyon home, his father’s lawyer presents Sam with a leather bag stuffed with cash. But it also contains a note with a name — Josh — and an address, and a cryptic request: “take care of them”.

At the address, Sam finds Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) and his mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), who he quickly determines is his half-sister. She has no idea who he is, of course; if she did she’d never talk to the son who got the father who abandoned her. Of course, we know that secrets will come out, and we can make some good guesses how it will play from there.

But just because we have a good idea where we’re headed doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy getting there. That we can is a credit to the skill of first-time director Alex Kurtzman. Yes, that Alex Kurtzman, along with his regular co-writer Roberto Orci. Yes, they’re almost exclusively known for science fiction and action fare like Cowboys & Aliens, Fringe, the Star Trek reboot, and even two of the Transformers movies. Yes, I was caught completely by surprise: Kurtzman is really, really good.

The story is nothing revolutionary, but it’s solid and it gets the job done. Pine and Banks’ parts may be long, slow, and directly over the plate, but that doesn’t change the fact that they both hit it out of the park. Banks plays a much pointier variation on her usual character. Michelle Pfeiffer also steps up as Sam’s distracted, frumpy mother, while D’Addario shows a fair amount of promise.

But it was Kurtzman’s direction that really made the film work. In part, it’s the ability to elicit these emotional performances from his cast, but it’s also the craft of framing and composing the story as a film that makes Kurtzman’s skill clear.

One technique in particular stands out: a shorter, tighter variant on the montage. At a number of points, Kurtzman and Orci want to communicate a certain overall emotional tone — Sam’s business spiel, Sam and Frankie getting to know each other, a night of existential frustration. Rather than use single long conversations, Kutzman and editor Robert Leighton — himself no stranger to the light drama — select short lines and shots to layer over each other, which keeps the scene moving along. When they need to focus in, they take longer, slower exchanges before speeding up again.

Techniques like this foreground the artifice of filmmaking, but in the right hands they don’t feel artificial. Like paintings with clearly visible brush-strokes, there is no denying that this is a constructed image. From the editing to the musical backdrop — a great soundtrack of hits fleshed out with a score by A.R. Rahman — it’s clear where the choices have been made to achieve various effects, but the result never feels manipulative or cynical about it.

Kurtzman and Orci may be known for a whole different kind of storytelling, but they’ve taken to this sort of touching drama like ducks to water. With any luck there will be more coming down the pipe soon.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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