I suppose it doesn’t much matter that the machinery at work in People Like Us becomes visible fairly early on. Like countless other movies about family drama, it was made with the sole intention of winning over an audience. And so it does. I don’t know how plausible the idea is, but then again, I don’t think director/co-writer Alex Kurtzman was much interested in plausibility; although it’s said to be loosely based on his own life story (a claim I have no intention of looking into), his status as a filmmaker means he must understand the inherent plot-enhancing values of dramatic license. I believe he was aiming for nothing more or less than entertainment. As long as the story is engaging, the characters are well-developed, and the performances are decent, I see absolutely nothing wrong with this approach.
We meet Sam (Chris Pine), a young New York businessman who can talk the talk with the best of them. When one of his deals goes horrendously wrong, he finds himself deeply in debt and in hot water with his boss (a cameo by Jon Favreau). He goes home, understandably worried, only to have his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), be the bearer of bad news, namely the death of his father, a powerful and apparently well connected record producer. They both fly to Los Angeles for the funeral, although not before Sam tries to get out of it by pretending to lose his wallet at the airport. The long and short of it is that father and son had been estranged for years, the former a detached, unemotional man. Sam and Hannah arrive at his childhood home much later than scheduled, prompting his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), to angrily slap him.
During his stay, Sam meets with his father’s attorney (Philip Baker Hall), who presents an old shaving kit stuffed with $150,000 in cash. It’s at this point that Sam learns that his father had another family and that he has a half-sister. Here enters Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a recovering alcoholic and single mom who barely gets by, strangely enough, as a bartender. Her adolescent son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), is a troubled youth who gets into fights, vandalizes school property, and is defiant of authority – mostly therapists. His behavior stems, naturally, from his lack of a father figure. Sam’s instructions, as dictated by his father in a handwritten note, are to bequeath the money to Frankie and Josh. Sam, understandably floored by the revelation, considers keeping the money for himself. He has to get out of debt somehow.
He sneaks into one of Frankie’s AA meetings, where she reads her father’s obituary to the other alcoholics and tearfully laments that she wasn’t mentioned. Sam enters her life pretending to be a random stranger, and he will keep his secret throughout much of the rest of the film. He attributes it to fear, although I’m not sure this is even cinematically plausible, given the fact that his initial reaction to Frankie was to be a distant observer. Regardless, confidentiality is what allows for scenes of Sam becoming more personally invested in Frankie and Josh, most of them successfully finding the right balance between humor and heart. It’s all rather cinematic – not very likely, but pleasing to watch nonetheless. Frankie will inevitably become curious about this new man in her life, which makes for some rather awkward conversations.
The strained relationship between Sam and his mother is another plot point. To an extent, Lillian’s involvement makes perfect sense. After all, she was married to Sam’s father for a number of years, and rest assured that she’s just as conflicted about her feelings as Sam is. It’s also quite possible that she knows more about this situation than she’s willing to admit. Having said that, her presence is largely relegated to scenes of emotional outpourings, which is to say her character seemed to be included out of obligation for plot conventions. She will even fall victim to a completely unnecessary turn of events, namely a potentially life-saving medical procedure. This has no real bearing on the story, apart from an excuse to insert more drama.
Less time is devoted to the relationship between Sam and Hannah, the latter a law student awaiting acceptance from several universities. In accordance with the plot conventions I just mentioned, she will leave Lillian’s house and shack up in a hotel room after getting into a fight with Sam. In turn, Sam will eventually have to work at winning her back. Granted, he will not have to work hard as he would in your average Hollywood romantic comedy, which typically involves an over-the-top action or emotional gesture. Hannah is equally as underused and oversimplified as Lillian, existing primarily as the love interest Frankie obviously could not be. But this is a relatively minor complaint. As mechanical as it is, I accepted People Like Us as the funny and heartwarming film it so clearly was intended to be.
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