June 21, 2012

People Like Us

People_like_usStars Like These
Banks and Pine Go Hepburn and Tracy
By Cole Smithey

Smart dialogue intersperses a by-committee soap opera plot in a movie made much better than the sum of its vulnerable narrative by three terrific actors. Elizabeth Banks, Chris Pine, and young newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario exude an old-fashioned brand of movie magic that keeps you hanging on their every word. Every time another forced plot point threatens to make you wince, the actors add in emotional beats to snap the unwieldy material into believable shape. Their intuitive sense of comic timing helps.

Pine plays Sam Harper, the adult son of an L.A. record biz maverick dad whose sudden passing Sam doesn’t give two shits about. He’d rather stay in New York with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) than fly to L.A. for the funeral. Still, Sam’s legal troubles at work are worth escaping. Once in L.A. at his mother Lillian’s (Michelle Pfeiffer in a thankless supporting role) house, Sam gets a mixed-bag inheritance that keeps him confused for a good long while about how to execute his dead father’s wishes involving a sizeable chunk of secretly furnished cash. Enter Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom working as a bartender. Frankie is an AA member who attends regular meetings to avoid the pitfalls of her occupation. Fankie’s 11-year-old son Josh (exquisitely played by D’Addario) has a knack for getting in major trouble at school. Josh does a massive amount of damage to school property with a single act of vandalism that results in his possible expulsion.

Unbeknownst to them, Sam and Frankie share a familial relationship that demands some serious effort on both of their parts if it is to lead to any kind of shared future. Sam’s mother is none too pleased about her son’s recent discoveries. Lillian has secrets she’d rather keep hidden.

Television writer-turned-director Alex Kurtzman co-wrote the film’s script with Roberto Orci (“Star Trek”) and newcomer Jody Lambert. The writing team doesn’t so much create a storyline as hammer away at pet plot points — as with one involving Sam’s looming run-in with the New York court system. Note to screenwriters, telephone conversations are an inherently dull way to give exposition or create dramatic suspense. That the script team never bothers to resolve Sam’s ostensibly worrisome subplot, involving his questionable business practices, leaves a crater in the film’s coda. Miraculously, even such glaring omissions become forgivable in light of the emotional connection between the main characters. The actors’ fluid choices — involving intentionality, physicality, and phrasing — help mask such clunky plots mechanics. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Frost/Nixon”) also contributes greatly to the film’s success with evocative compositions that expand the harmony of the narrative with precise visual touches.

“People Like Us” is a conundrum. Objectively, it’s not an exceptional movie. Nonetheless, the story has a wealth of compelling emotional hooks, rooted in complex family issues, which more than a few audience members will relate to. As a tearjerker, the drama works like a charm. The real reason to see “People Like Us” is for the positively masterful performances that Banks, Pine, and D’Addario so generously give. Modern day Hollywood does indeed have some bona fide movie stars on its hands.

Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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