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Thursday, July 12, 2012 10:05 am

People struggles to find its footing

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There’s an earnestness to Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us that’s admirable. You can tell the cast is doing its best to give life to the writer/director’s words and is trying to make the premise they’ve been saddled with as believable as possible. Kurtzman himself, in his directorial debut, pulls out all the stops, getting the film off to a good start as he quickly introduces his cast of characters in an invigorating manner.

They almost succeed in making People a distinctive and meaningful entertainment. But the cast is undercut by a story that, despite being based on Kurtzman’s own experiences, owes far too much to other better-made films for this one to make its own mark.

The obvious antecedent to the movie is Rain Man. We meet Sam (Chris Pine), a young man with a chip on his shoulder over the lack of attention he received from his father, who finds himself struggling under a mountain of debt. His well-meaning girlfriend, Hannah (a wasted Olivia Wilde), can’t reach him emotionally and he’s in danger of losing his job when he gets a piece of shocking news. Sam’s father has died and he’s been charged him with delivering $150,000 in cash to a half-sister he never knew he had. Aware of whom her father was, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) bears a bitter resentment towards him as her feelings of abandonment have never wavered. Struggling as a single mom, she’s weary of Sam when he pops into her life, suspicious that he’s looking to have a good time with her and nothing more.

The biggest problem with the script is that Kurtzman structures it so that the relationship between the two principals is built on a lie. Sam does not reveal his connection to Frankie as he’s unsure whether to keep the money for himself or pass it along. Obviously, we’re just waiting for this to blow up in his face and when it does, we’re reminded of the many other “How could you have lied to me?” scenes we’ve witnessed before. In not putting the film on an honest narrative footing, Kurtzman prevents us from emotionally buying in to the premise, which dooms it in the end.

Still, there are some moments that work, thanks in large part to the cast. Pine is surprisingly good here, showing us Sam’s transformation into the responsible person in a convincing manner, while Banks is a wonder, putting forth a sassy, confident demeanor, yet breaking our hearts when she’s allowed to break down and show the pain Frankie is dealing with. As Sam’s mother, Michelle Pfeiffer, reminds us what an assured and strong actress she’s become. Pine has to hang on tight in each scene he shares with her and rises to the challenge, resulting in some emotionally sound moments.

Though derivative where it longs to be unique, People manages to work in fits and starts, laboring under the onus of having to play through well-known tropes and conventions. Still there are moments when it all comes together, especially at the end when Kurtzman blindsides us with a conclusion that’s so poignant it can’t help but get our attention. I have a feeling he’s a good filmmaker in the making and one to watch once he finds his true voice.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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