Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lost Amid Summer Blockbuster Season, People Like Us Is A Formulaic (Though Not Unenjoyable) Drama Film!

The Good: Interesting characters, Good performances, Interesting plot set-up, Fun commentary tracks.
The Bad: Problematically obvious plot progression, Obvious construction conceits.
The Basics: Fun and interesting, People Like Us nevertheless succumbs to obvious formulaic conceits that rob it of being genuinely original.

As a reviewer, it behooves me to remind readers occasionally that something can be enjoyable without being particularly good. There are a great many things, pop music and popcorn movies especially, that I can admit to enjoying while still acknowledging rationally that they aren’t very good. Summer Blockbuster Season is the epitome of “enjoyable, but not good” in cinema, though there are always a few exceptions that make going to the movies in the summer worthwhile. People Like Us, which snuck somewhat anonymously into Summer Blockbuster Season last year and died a quick box office death amid the big special effects-driven movies, is enjoyable and good, but nothing more. In other words, the film – which seems cast, conceived, and even performed for greatness – is good and worth watching, but it never achieves any sort of even passing greatness. Instead, it settles for the high average territory and never challenges itself for more.

At the heart of the problem with People Like Us is the obvious Hollywood plot structure of the film. Essentially a “separated at birth” type story – though with the more contemporary “dad had a whole other family” variation - People Like Us develops as a troublingly obvious story in terms of plot. One character knows something the other doesn’t, he chooses to withhold that information, they grow close, the information is revealed, she gets pissed off at him for betrayal, then [choose your end] learns to live with it or moves for a happy ending. People Like Us is that formulaic and it is unfortunate in that the film starts with such potential to be something smarter. In fact if the writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who co-wrote Star Trek, reviewed here!) and Jody Lambert had just opted to have the character with the information reveal it at the beginning and then actually wrestle with the consequences of that, as opposed to going with the obvious and contrived structures viewers have seen ad nauseum before, then People Like Us could have actually been something more than it ended up being.

As it is, it is the story of two lost characters, who in the process of learning about themselves and their family tie, they come to get through some of their lowest points in life. In the wake of Sam making a spectacular blunder at work that he is not able to devote the time to bribe his way out of, Sam’s father dies. His girlfriend, Hannah, pushes him to return to California for the funeral, though Sam works hard to avoid it. Arriving too late for the actual funeral, Sam finds his mother furious with him and the family lawyer, Rafferty, waiting to deliver something to him.

The something is $150,000 in cash for Josh and his mother, Frankie. Frankie, Sam quickly learns when stalking her to her A.A. meeting and hearing about her father, is Sam’s half-sister whose existence he was ignorant of. Frankie has her own problems; struggling to make ends meet, her son Josh accidentally blew up the school pool. Sticking around in Los Angeles, despite Federal investigators looking for him for the work-related incident, Sam gets to know Josh and slowly starts to bond with Frankie while repairing his relationship with his mother.

Until, of course, the inevitable revelation that the viewer sees coming a mile away and, instead of some sort of anticlimactic “I’ve always known” (a la Princess Leia in Return Of The Jedi), director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman goes with the obvious smackfest that viewers are comfortable with otherwise rational women degenerating into.

Rather than beat the dead horse of the formulaic plot, I’ll make a left turn into what I liked. I like that Frankie is a recovering alcoholic who does not, predictably, fall off the wagon when things get tough. In a refreshing change for the cinema, the alcoholic mother is anchored by her responsibilities to her son and she struggles to keep focused on providing a better life for him than she herself had. Frankie becomes more compelling and real the more unrealistic and wasted (on his father’s medicine) Sam gets. Sam is at his most interesting at the film’s beginning and in his interactions with Josh.

The commentary track with Alex Kurtzman, Elizabeth Banks, and Chris Pine is wonderfully entertaining as well. As Banks notes, the chemistry on-screen between her and Pine is surprisingly hot and in virtually any other film, their characters would be going at it like bunnies after (or during) the smoking scene. Kurtzman avoids any incestuous moments, which is nice, and Pine plays Sam entirely without the spark that would insinuate he is looking at Frankie in that way. In fact, arguably the only real reason for Hannah to exist in the movie is to provide a concrete, obvious reminder for viewers that Sam is anchored emotionally elsewhere. Hannah’s presence – in a true bit role for Olivia Wilde – is to fill the role of the negotiator and to make it plausible that when Sam sees Frankie the first time in her virtually nonexistent skirt that he isn’t checking her out (even then).

Banks manages to illustrate Frankie’s growing attraction and reliance on Sam with her body language – mostly her eyes. In a performance somewhat reminiscent of her role in Zack And Miri Make A Porno (reviewed here!), Elizabeth Banks makes Frankie strong and selectively vulnerable, but always deeply emotional and expressive of that in real ways (especially for someone who has lived a life where she must be guarded most of the time, looking after her child).

But for all the enjoyment from the commentary track and the main film, People Like Us is a more average family drama than it is in any way audacious or truly original.

For other works featuring Olivia Wilde, please check out my reviews of:
The Words
In Time
The Change-Up
Cowboys And Aliens
Tron: Legacy
The Next Three Days
Year One
House, M.D. - Season Four


Check out how this movie stacks up against other films by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where films are organized from best to worst!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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