Charlie Capen explains how the resonant theme of losing one’s father makes the film ‘People Like Us” a touching, personal story the likes of which we rarely see out of Hollywood these days.
But not so with Dreamworks’ Pictures “People Like Us“, a film inspired by true events in director Alex Kurtzman’s own life.
On the outside, “People Like Us” is a dramedy about family and loss, starring Chris Pine as a fast-talking salesperson named “Sam”, a late-twenties jiver on the verge of personal meltdown as his business life implodes into oblivion. Just when things can’t submerge any deeper for him, he gets the call we’ve all imagined or have tried not to imagine. His father has died.
Sam’s father was not a paragon of parenting. He was a music producer of repute, especially during the 1970′s, and didn’t let a thing like children get in the way of his playtime. His extracurricular activities reminded me of my own father’s, deeply entrenched in both music and mood, never really solving their coexistence.
In the past, heavy emotional moments like these are thrust on us hard and fast. But Kurtzman takes his time. He unravels each character’s history with the wit of a writer but the smarts of seasoned director. He elongates the moments of revelation and splashes humor in at just the right moments.
Sam is a post-modernist comment on the slacker “grown up” archetype… or at least as grown up as we can be. We know we have needs and work fast to get to them, but usually omit the details of getting there. Self-reflection becomes a luxury he can’t afford, and you see growing frustration in his VERY giving girlfriend, played by Olivia Wilde.
Sam’s mother is played by the inimitable Michelle Pfeiffer who takes on the role of a grieving woman head-on. Still, I had to ask Kurtzman if the unicorn blood she drinks to say looking young was wild-caught or farm-raised. She’s incredible. But as we work through the chaotic and emotionally booby-trapped experience of confronting the loss of a parent, Sam makes a stunning discovery: he has an older sister, something I’ve dealt with in my own life, with my own insta-family that seems to grow every ten years or so.
So, now, Sam has to determine whether he should, in his financial in-prosperity, give his father’s bequest to this unknown variable of a woman, “Frankie”, played by Elizabeth Banks, a former-addict mother making ends meet in LA catering jobs and bars. Of Banks and Frankie, more from Kurtzman:
“I saw a lot of actresses for Frankie and they were all amazing, every one of them. But my worry with Frankie was that she would walk into the room and there would be a heaviness about her given her life… And when Elizabeth came in, she… kind of threw it away. And when I s– felt like I was watching was this person who was trying very hard not to have the words mean what they meant. And because of that they meant so much more… Like she could mow you down, but when she did make herself vulnerable, you needed to recognize that it was such an experience and a rare moment for her ‘cause she just didn’t do that. Elizabeth I think conveyed all of that to me and in about two seconds when she started reading.”< By this time, we sit in this futurist hour, where our fathers haunt us with their secrets and we seek answers from them after they're dead. That certainly hit me where I live. As Kurtzman puts it, “…the movie for me in a lot of ways is a ghost story. And it’s about how this man is haunting everybody. And I love the idea that the one person who could give them answers wasn’t around to give them answers.”
Mr. Kurtzman, a notable secret weapon in Hollywood, has penned a ton of box office winners and with this film, his first directorial outing, chose to make a small film. By his own account, he thought would never get made. When he handed it to them he gave a proviso, “‘You guys don’t have to like this and you certainly don’t have to make it. I just wanna know what you think of it.’ And I gave it to them on a Thursday and I got a call on — on Saturday. And they said, ‘We’re making a movie.’”
There are a lot of factors that go into a movie being made, not the least of which are a stunning box office history, but I’d like to think this studio said yes to this project on the basis of the story they were trying to tell. “People Like Us” is not a typical drama, yet somehow matches a 2012 sensibility. There are so many stories to tell of men who didn’t have their fathers around, but not in the 1950′s ‘he was always at work’ or ‘emotionally unavailable’ way. These men sat right in front of us or left our families, and we got to pick up the pieces after them.
I found out about new siblings when I was 16. Kurtzman found out about his new sister when he was 30 years old. But if the final sequence of the film, the very spark for the entire script by his account, is any representation of how he sees his new family member, the work he’s done on himself and his film proves it be a journey fulfilled.
Don’t let films like this be tossed aside. Go see “People Like Us” which opens in theaters (today, Friday, June 29th, 2012.)