Mysteries lead to more family lies
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 29, 2012
There’s an inherent contradiction in any film that employs movie stars and then expects us to believe that these gorgeous, wealthy creatures are ordinary Joes. But we buy into it, if the story is honest enough, because we want -- and probably need -- to.
In “People Like Us,” the story of a man who discovers a half-sister he never knew he had, it might take the audience a bit longer than average to come around, in part because the film’s title sets up an implicit challenge. Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks are just like us? Really? Eventually, however, we do, thanks to the heartfelt and touching telling of the tale by filmmaker Alex Kurtzman.
Known as the writer of such summer blockbusters as “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible III,” Kurtzman based his directorial debut loosely on his life. He met his own half-sister when he turned 30. Ultimately, the movie’s fundamental truth shines through the Hollywood gloss.
Initially, however, part of the credibility problem lies with Pine’s Sam, a slick salesman who learns that he has a half-sister Frankie (Banks) when his father dies, leaving Sam $150,000 and instructions to deliver it to Frankie’s 11-year-old son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). Like his late father -- who successfully hid his second family from his son -- Sam is an inveterate liar. He lies to his customers, he lies to his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) and he lies to his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer). In fact, he’s so good at dissembling that at times it’s hard to tell the difference between the character’s lies and the actor’s.
In other words, for a while there, the movie feels a little too much like a movie: phony and scripted.
Mostly, Sam lies to Frankie, whom at first he can’t bring himself to tell about the money, let alone the nature of their relationship. Instead, Sam allows Frankie to believe that his preternatural interest in her might just be romantic. What’s obvious to the audience -- that she’s slowly falling for her own brother, as much for his charm as for his almost fatherly affection for Josh, who never knew his father -- somehow escapes Sam’s notice until the film’s explosive climax.
That’s when “People Like Us” cracks wide open, revealing the messy -- and surprisingly genuine -- fears beneath Sam’s glad-handing facade. Frankie’s emotions, on the other hand, have always been closer to the surface. A recovering addict and struggling single mother of a problem child, she’s more of an open book, even if it’s a tiny bit hard to swallow the hard-luck story written in it. Banks is just too drop-dead glamorous.
But the movie wouldn’t be able to crack open at all if there weren’t tiny fissures in in from the beginning. In fact, it’s the flaws that Kurtzman builds into “People Like Us” that make it interesting.
One of them is the character of Josh. As an angry, wounded -- but, deep down, sweet -- kid, D’Addario is the antithesis of the professional Hollywood munchkin. He never feels less than wholly real, whether he’s setting off a chemical bomb at school, breaking a classmate’s nose or accusing Sam of having inappropriate intentions toward him.
That ambiguity around Sam’s sudden appearance in Frankie’s life -- underscored by his insistence that he’s not hitting on her -- sets up the central tension of the film. Is he gay? A child molester? When the big reveal finally comes, setting up the film’s message about the importance of family -- not to mention telling the truth -- all hell breaks lose, but also a little bit of heaven too.
Contains some crude language, drug use and brief sexuality.