Many Screen Rant readers will instantly recognize Alex Kurtzman for his screenwriting work (along with co-writer Roberto Orci) on a number of high profile geek-friendly film projects including Mission: Impossible III, Transformers, and the Star Trek reboot, among others. However, with People Like Us (formerly Welcome to People) the writer makes his directorial debut – leading a cast that includes big name acting talent Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Elizabeth Banks, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
While there’s little doubt that Kurtzman’s script for the “based on true events” project – which he penned with Orci as well as Jody Lambert – is another quality piece of writing, there’s no precedent for the filmmaker’s work behind the camera. As a result, does Kurtzman deliver captivating onscreen drama in People Like Us – offering something more than just a well written story?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. People Like Us is a solid start for a freshman director and even though the film has some problems, there are plenty of smart moments and careful cinematography to culminate in a satisfying and thoughtful trip to the theater. While the movie can be overly sentimental from time to time, and leans heavily on a few moments that aren’t quite earned, captivating performances and multifaceted/flawed characters will likely keep most moviegoers engaged in the storyline and its principle players – even if the moment to moment drama falters (or drags) once in awhile.
The initial setup is somewhat familiar, Sam (Chris Pine) is a workaholic who, while dealing with an FTC audit at work, is forced to drop everything in New York and return home for the first time in a number of years – to attend his father’s funeral. Sam’s girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde) accompanies him on the trip only to return to New York after a few short days – when Sam throws a self-centered fit following the discovery that his father left $150,000 to an estranged daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth banks) and Grandson, Josh (Hall D’Addario). Confused about what to do, Sam instigates a number of “chance” encounters with his half-sister (hiding his true identity), in order to fill in the missing pieces of his family story.
The core storyline, about a young man who returns home to bury his father, may not be the most original setup but, even when People Like Us comes across a bit familiar, the performances in the film, coupled with a steady directorial hand from Kurtzman, successfully elevate the onscreen experience well above standard drama tropes. Chris Pine delivers a competent performance as Sam – smartly moving the character from a tongue wagging businessman to a contemplative and dithering guy struggling with his own self interests and those of his newly discovered (unbeknownst to them) family members. Similarly, Elizabeth Banks gives one of her most absorbing performances to date as Frankie – who is trying to make sense of the man that has, out of nowhere, taken an interest in her and her son. While a story about a good looking estranged siblings (of the opposite sex) could quickly make for awkward onscreen moments, Kurtzman somehow manages to find a balance that prevents things from getting too uncomfortable – without also undermining the intricacies of the story being told.
Whereas Michelle Pfeiffer (who plays Sam’s mother, Lillian) was sorely underutilized in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, the Hollywood icon is given a number of powerful scenes in People Like Us – successfully avoiding bitter mother cliches and, instead, presenting Lillian as a flawed and defeated woman who gave everything she could to her family (at the expense of her own health and happiness). Similarly, Olivia Wilde, who also offers a compelling turn, succeeds in adding an important dimension to Sam’s arc. Even if her character, Hannah, isn’t given a ton of the overall screen time, Wilde’s presence in the film provides a nice touchstone for Sam’s ever-shifting character.
For the most part, the story follows a sensible progression from scene to scene but some of the beats are uneven and don’t work as well as others. In general, Kurtzman avoids unnecessary detours (though the film is still overlong) and appropriately keeps the film focused on Sam and Frankie; however, the director sets up more storylines than he has time to ultimately pay off and certain plot points are left dangling or, even worse, get explained away with little more than smiles and a couple lines of dialogue. As a result, while People Like Us delivers a satisfying emotional payoff, the movie succeeds only by avoiding the responsibility of facing some of its more challenging developments (a problem that is made even more noticeable considering Sam is repeatedly criticized in the film for running away from conflict). Ultimately, with so many engaging moments and downright powerful performances, the strength of the film’s successes only make it harder to swallow the story beats that don’t get as much attention.
People Like Us isn’t the debut home run that Kurtzman might have hoped for but that shouldn’t discourage moviegoers from checking the film out. Certain elements of the plot are underdeveloped and uneven but a number of captivating performances and an intriguing premise elevate the project above standard drama fare. Kurtzman may need a little more experience before he can match his writing talents with his behind the camera work but People Like Us serves as an encouraging inaugural step.
If you’re still on the fence about People Like Us, check out the trailer below:
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People Like Us is Rated PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality. Now playing in theaters.