In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni directed his first English-language film, “Blow-Up,” in which a fashion photographer believes he may have unwittingly captured a murder on film. The film was hailed for its innovative use of cinematography and color composition, techniques Antonioni used to place his audience within his protagonist’s mind, to bring the photographer’s intangible feelings of confusion and uncertainty to the realm of physical depiction. This technical conceit was memorably mirrored – using sound recording rather than visuals – eight years later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” then again in Brian de Palma’s “Blow Out,” in 1981. The three films were alike in their genre and premise as well, each a crime thriller centered on a character’s discovery of something hidden within the materials associated with his line of work. Alex Kurtzman’s new film, “People Like Us,” shares the technical prowess of these films, employing supreme sound and visual techniques to create subjectivity. However, an increasingly rote storyline and adherence to syrupy sweet romantic comedy tropes leaves a murky aftertaste: a schmaltzy tearjerker masquerading as a psychological thriller.
Sam Harper (Chris Pine) returns to his parents’ home in LA for the first time in many years when his father, a semi-famous music producer, dies after a long battle with cancer. Arriving late for the funeral, Sam is met with an icy welcome from his estranged mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), and an odd last request from his father, Jerry, imparted by the family lawyer: deliver $150,000 to one Josh Davis, and take care of him and his mother. Sam immediately seeks Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) out, only to discover that the boy’s mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), is Jerry’s daughter, Sam's half-sister, a sibling he’s never heard anything about, let alone met. Rather than simply explaining the situation, Sam decides to take the friendly stranger approach to introducing himself, and it’s not long before he’s deeply involved, and in a very deep lie, with his newfound family.
The pain and chaos Sam experiences after unearthing this immense family secret is illustrated with great effectiveness through editing and sound. Determined to contact every Davis in the phonebook in order to figure out which one was named by the will, Sam paces through Jerry’s studio with a bottle of liquor, getting drunker with each phone call. Later, deciding how to approach Frankie, he hyperventilates in a bathroom stall. In each of these sequences, fast-paced cutting between slightly different angles of Sam’s tortured face is unnerving, while amplified sound effects of doors slamming, record players scratching, and dial tones indicate an eerie otherworldliness. Here are two very personal outlooks for the audience, views into the protagonist’s mind as it descends into an altered state of inebriation or panic. Both interesting and creative, these moments are perhaps the best ones the film has to offer.
Kurtzman is better known for his writing than directing, having penned the screenplays for “Mission Impossible III,” “Transformers,” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” as well as a number of episodes of “Alias.” “People Like Us” is his first effort at feature direction, and after such extensive work on action blockbusters, it’s not hard to understand why Kurtzman uses the overly technical style, despite his straightforward and sentimental narrative. And to his credit, it is, at times, effective. Yet, the potential of this stylization is lost when accompanied an expected story about ill-defined, terribly mawkish characters.
The script, written by Kurtzman, Robert Orci, and Jody Lambert, makes good use of the rom com outline, hitting all the right notes at all the right times as it heads towards its preordained conclusion. And the twist – that the two leads are siblings rather than lovers – is an interesting differentiation for this well-known format. However, the main conceit grows tired quickly, as Sam’s reasoning for keeping their shared parentage a secret from Frankie is unexplained from the start, meaning that his continued silence seems forced, a writer’s device for moving the story toward a dramatic climax rather than a depiction of real human behavior. In fact, aside from Sam, many of the characters lack realism, as they are drawn sketchily at best, inconsistent at worst, motives and manners contoured to fit the film’s needs at any given moment. Certain secondary storylines are similarly mercurial, as B-plots that would appear to be driving the story – Sam may be facing a lawsuit for a mistake he made at work, and he might be breaking up with his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) – are resolved without too much trouble or effort – just kidding! No one’s getting sued or breaking up!
The actors each pull their weight, but a standout performance from D’Addario is the most exciting and enticing one on screen. The young boy delivers his overly precocious lines with the perfect know-it-all petulance and venom of an angry pre-teen, and probably has most of the film’s funny lines. Pine and Banks are generally good, but slip into actor-speak during many of their moments of cutesy bonding: they are charming, witty, and self-deprecating, but also visibly aware of it; in other words, they act like actors. While more natural when punctuated by shots from Josh’s handheld camera as he makes a home video, this “actors playing themselves” routine has become so overused that the supposedly realistic scenes take on a very staged feel.
The films from Antonioni, Coppola, and De Palma were groundbreaking both because they were able to build their stories and their characters via technical means as well as written words, and because the techniques used were radical in and of themselves. While “People Like Us” honors the visual and aural achievements of its predecessors well, it never manages to align its script with its images and sounds as successfully, leaving an audience with pleased eyes but discontented minds. The film is at turns sweet, smart, funny, and well acted; at others, it becomes excessively maudlin, the actors’ sentimental and nostalgic monologues covering for a narrative that has played out too quickly. Though certainly an incredibly well made film on a technical level, “People Like Us” falls short in its story and character development, and, by its conclusion, has failed to illustrate how these people are alike at all. That is, beyond the fact that they’re all really, really good-looking. [C]