There’s something particularly devastating about a movie of obvious quality that shirks its responsibility to the emotional truth of its characters. A movie with style — by which I mean the ability, but not necessarily the resolve, to film scenes that shape a story so that it properly conveys the emotional experience of the characters within it — owes a simple debt to the audience watching it: we have to believe that the characters we’ve met and the problems they endure are being treated with respect by caring filmmakers. Otherwise, all a filmmaker is doing is thinking up conundrums to place people in and devising ways for the camera department to add some pizzazz.
I had low expectations heading into People Like Us. Its premise, about a man who gets close to a woman without letting her in on the secret that she’s his sister, is far too cute and neatly succinct to have elicited a driving need to go and see it. But I did see it, and as it started, my spirits lifted. There was swift editing; a roving, determined camera; and, most promisingly, clear, focused attention paid to the details of the performances. Within the first act (classic structure is important to director Alex Kurtzman, who, with cowriter Roberto Orci, is responsible for fixing up the screenplays behind $3 billion worth of movies) everything works beautifully. As it opens, People Like Us is breathless, well-timed, and colorful, with an intense way of setting up its story by looking at the creases, bruises, and conflict on its actors’ faces. It’s a piercing introduction to interesting characters, even if the main one, Sam (Chris Pine), is playing the classic smooth-talking shitbag whose humbling dose of life lessons is inevitably just around the corner.
But it appears that right around the time Kurtzman and Orci finished writing the first act, they realized they didn’t have the dedication (or maybe the attention span) to take the promise of their good opening to an honest conclusion. Instead of trying to shoot the moon — by taking a shot at ballsy, PT Anderson-level narrative flights (it’s impossible not to compare a stylish, L.A.-based movie about familial pain with Anderson’s early work) — People Like Us settles into a depressingly recognizable series of dramedy conclusions. By its pat, predictable end, People has devolved into a bag of tricks cribbed from filmmakers with their own highly personal styles; Kurtzman uses these to dress up a script that ultimately reveals itself as slick, Hollywood business as usual.
Despite all of this, Pine and (less surprisingly) Elizabeth Banks turn in unexpectedly precise performances as Sam and Frankie, the pair of long-lost half-siblings. He is still the above-mentioned amoral prick (for a living he buys up shoddy second-hand goods by the truckload and ships them off to the third world for a tidy profit) when he learns of Frankie’s existence just after the death of their record producer father. Asked to deliver her inheritance, he tracks her down; she turns out to be a single-mom bartender with an alcohol problem.
From their first glance, the movie makes no bones about Sam and Frankie being destined to meet and change one another, and, because of the hard work that’s obviously been put into the surface of the movie, we expect their changes to be more nuanced that those of your average romantic-drama characters. What actually happens is the script spends a lot of time coming up with excuses for Sam not to tell Frankie he’s her brother, which eventually reveals itself to be a trick used to prolong the movie’s tension. After a promising introduction (to each other), they remain joined only by a tidy narrative device, though both actors manage to turn in refreshingly untidy performances. Sam is unable to avoid seeming like he’s courting Frankie, and, since he’s handsome and charming, she eventually falls for him. This is a delicate role for Pine to play, and he shows depths of emotional range — the ability to convey the anguish of knowing his sister thinks of him sexually without being able to do anything about it — that seemed beyond him as young Captain Kirk in Star Trek.
The nice thing, the consolation, is that once the script goes into standard mistaken-identity autopilot, the intensity of the performances and the movie’s visual style don’t diminish. The bad thing is that they begin to seem superfluous. People Like Us has been written, shot, and edited by professionals with obvious talent. But Kurtzman and Orci made their reputation as script-doctors for big-budget nonsense, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that their screenplay is the weakest link of the first movie they’ve made on their own.
The great critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas wrote in 1961, “Why don’t we forget literature and drama and Aristotle! Let’s watch the human face on the screen.” I wish I didn’t have to quibble with a force as great as Mekas, but if his logic were taken to its extent, then movies like this one would deserve recognition as masterpieces, just for paying attention to the expressiveness of great performers. But I can’t think Mekas would tolerate People Like Us. I think he’d be able to see that sometimes, great faces can be used to help a movie fake its way to the end credits.