From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars. To read my interview with Chris Pine and Alex Kurtzman, click here.
Movie review: ‘People Like Us’
This blockbuster season, seasoned action-movie screenwriter Alex Kurtzman makes his directorial debut with the intimate, affecting family, a powerfully quiet change of pace from the showy superheroes, animated critters and computer-generated explosions that dominate cineplexes this time of year.
With his writing partner Roberto Orci, Hollywood scribe Alex Kurtzman has penned more than his share of summer popcorn movies, including “Mission: Impossible III,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” the first two “Transformers” flicks and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot.
This blockbuster season, though, Kurtzman makes his directorial debut with the intimate, affecting family drama “People Like Us,” a powerfully quiet change of pace from the showy superheroes, animated critters and computer-generated explosions that dominate cineplexes this time of year.
“Star Trek” leading man Chris Pine stars as Sam, a fast-talking New York salesman who is summoned back to his hometown of Los Angeles at the death his distant father, a noted 1970s and ‘80s record producer who knew how to score hits but never bothered with figuring out how to raise a child. With his understanding girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) in tow, Sam reluctantly trudges back home to his estranged, grieving mother Lillian (the excellent Michelle Pfeiffer).
Still bitter toward his dad, Sam gets a shock when he takes a private meeting with his father’s attorney (Philip Baker Hall), who hands over a worn leather bag stuffed with $150,000 and a note instructing Sam to deliver it to a local apartment, the home of strong-willed single mom Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her clever, rebellious son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario).
They are strangers to him, but with a bit of stalkerish investigating, Sam soon realizes, to his astonishment, that Frankie is the half-sister he never knew he had.
With his shady job in jeopardy and deep debts piled up, Sam is averse to turning over the cash, even when he realizes the financial tightrope Frankie, a reformed party girl, is walking with her dead-end job as a bartender.
Still, Sam feels compelled to get to know Frankie, so he conceals his true identity and poses as a new member of her Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. They swiftly develop a close bond — he assures her that he will never, ever hit on her, and fortunately, their budding relationship avoids veering into creepy territory — while Sam quickly becomes a fatherlike figure to Josh.
After becoming such fast friends, Sam struggles with how to reveal his deception and true identity to his long-lost relatives. He also grapples with broaching the topic with his mourning mother.
Pine again employs the potent charisma with which he played reckless young Captain James T. Kirk while showing off unsuspected depth and sensitivity. After nearly stealing the show in “The Hunger Games,” Banks provides both the emotional grounding and much-needed humor of “People Like Us.” D’Addario capitalizes on a potential breakout; his 11-year-old Josh is mischievous without getting too mean-spirited and precocious without becoming precious.
Although it occasionally flirts with becoming too soapy and contrived, Kurtzman, along with his stellar cast and crew, ably imbues the story with a sense of realness. That’s perhaps to be expected since the script is loosely based on his own experiences — about eight years ago, he met his half-sister for the first time, though he always knew she was out there — with additional real-life flourishes added by Orci and third screenwriter Jody Lambert.
The first-time director and cinematographer Salvatore Totino use real, non-touristy L.A. locations to endow the film with an added layer of authenticity. With the story’s roots in ‘70s-era music, the film makes excellent use of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and the like, while composer A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”) contributes a lovely, heartfelt score. The Oscar winner also collaborated with indie rocker Liz Phair on the gorgeous closing theme “Dotted Line.”
Even better, the ending lives up to the song. Even if you see it coming, Kurtzman gives the film a satisfying emotional payoff that makes all the soap bubbles drift away.