You might not be familiar with the name Alex Kurtzman but you can be sure you’ve seen some of his work on the big or small screen. Kurtzman, along with his partner in crime Robert Orci, are something of a Hollywood powerhouse, writing and producing high-concept films and TV shows. Graduating from the school of JJ Abrams on shows such as Alias and Fringe,then moving on to mammoth franchises such as Transformers and Star Trek, Kurtzman and Orci have taken Hollywood by storm, becoming a Simpson andBruckheimer for the 21st Century. So it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to directing. First up then is Kurtzman’s People Like Us, a film as good as based on his family history which benefits not from the Kurtzman-Orci brand but from the vast array of connections the pair have made in their rise to the top.
Sam (Chris Pine) is an ambitious salesman whose latest venture is going down the pan. He’s in debt and is being investigated for illegal trading. So when his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) informs him his father, with whom he has always had a distant relationship, has died it looks like things couldn’t get much worse. Reluctantly travelling to his hometown of LA, his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) is less than impressed he’s narrowly missed the funeral. But when Sam goes to collect his inheritance from his father’s lawyer he is given a bag with $150,000 in it and informed, via a note from dear old dad, to give it to a young boy. In need of the money and anxious to know who the kid is, he soon learns that Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) is in fact his nephew and his mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) is his half-sister. That’s right; dad had a daughter that Sam never knew about. But rather than contest the will Sam decides to get to know Frankie and Josh while never telling either he is related to them.
Remember Rain Man? Tom Cruise playing a smug salesman who discovers all his inheritance has been left to a card counting, autistic Dustin Hoffmanwho turns out to be his brother? People Like Us is essentially the same story but instead of a potentially money-spinning brother, Sam gets an alcoholic sister and a smug nephew. The characters are fun but they’re never as flawed or appealing as Cruise and Hoffman were. They’re just not as interesting. The mid-section might be the highlight in terms of character interactions but it never progresses the plot. With Sam not telling Jackie who he is, you wonder how long it is before sister makes an ill-advised romantic move on her new BFF who insists on buying groceries and picking her delinquent son up from school. This might have added some much-needed drama to proceedings (and lets face it; if Elizabeth Banks was your sister, it’d cross your mind) but for better or worse it never goes down that dark road.
Kurtzman and Orci’s script, aided by childhood friend Jody Lambert, ticks all the right dramatic beats but rarely does so with the intended emotional punch. By the time the old family Super 8 footage comes out you cannot help feeling the film has sunk into the realms of cliché. Thankfully the dialogue and character observations are keener than the plot development. Frankie’s relationship with both Josh and Sam more often than not results in heartfelt and funny moments.
Kurtzman has clearly called in the favours when it comes to his directorial debut. Who else could recruit Captain Kirk,Hunger Games’ Effie and the hot naked girl from Cowboys & Aliens? Pine does the Tom Cruise cockiness with just the right amount of damaged, daddy abandonment issues, to make you like him even when he’s at his most deplorable. Olivia Wilde, though only appearing fleetingly, is the moral compass of the film and you wonder if Jiminy Cricket had looked this attractive, Pinocchio might have got into less trouble. Michelle Pfeiffer is on typically reliable form without ever being asked to do much with her part. Elizabeth Banks, wearing perhaps the most impressive push-up bra this side of Lara Croft, does white trash well, staying just this side of Erin Brockovich rather than Britney Spears. And special mention should go to young Michael Hall D’Addario who plays the bratish Josh with enough pubescent charm to make him just likeable enough that you don’t want to kick his foppish hair clean off his head.
People Like Us is the kind of film that if it came on TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you’d happily watch it to pass the time. But at nearly two hours it doesn’t do enough to grab the interest and when it aims for warmth, it often comes up clichéd and predictable. It’s a fine, if unspectacular, debut for Kurtzman but you cannot help wonder if his skills are better utilised on spaceships and monsters.