Someday, Hollywood writers will realize that drama and frustrating plot contrivances are not the same thing, and my job shall become substantially more pleasurable. Someday, good actors will not be wasted on deplorable characters, and I will be a happier person for it. Someday, an American film company will produce a film with a father figure who hasn’t ruined the lives of all his children, and for once I won’t feel sad thinking about how many people in the industry must have had horrible childhoods. Someday, preteens shall be depicted as actual children rather than neurotic amalgamations of every annoying or off-putting quality a human being could possess, and I won’t want to shove a fork in my eye every time a child walks on screen.
Alas, these are dreams of better days, and People Like Us is proof they have not arrived. I respect what writer/director Alex Kurtzman and co-writer Roberto Orci are attempting here; after years penning major summer blockbusters like Transformers and Star Trek, they’ve cashed in on their success for a low-key, human-scale drama, and there’s no denying the film’s heart is in the right place. Kurtzman and Orci want to examine the ways family can simultaneously lift us up and bring us down, and there’s nothing disingenuous or tin-eared about the film’s message or pathos. It is an honest movie made with passion, and for that, I can’t write it off entirely.
But Kurtzman and Orci rely far too heavily on tired and frustrating dramatic tropes, ones that undermine their characters and prevent me from investing in the story. I’m simply tired of seeing interesting characters make idiotic decisions for the sake of manufactured drama, and the entire plot of People Like Us is predicated on one of the largest contrivances I’ve encountered in some time.
Let me put it this way: If you suddenly discovered you had a half-sister, and she turned out to be a pretty nice person, would you keep your familial bonds a secret from her while hanging out around her and her kid for days on end? No, you wouldn’t, because you’re a sane human being, and it would be a spectacularly stupid thing to do.
Actually, the scenario People Like Us presents is even worse than that. Protagonist Sam (Chris Pine) finds out about the sister his father produced with another woman after his father dies. Sam doesn’t particularly care about his father’s death, because the man was neglectful, but Sam does care about his inheritance because he’s deep in debt. But the father left nothing for Sam, and instead requested his son deliver $150,000 in cash to this secret sibling, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). A single mother working double shifts at a bar to keep herself and her troubled son afloat, Frankie could really use the money her father legally bequeathed to her. But that doesn’t stop Sam from keeping everything a secret, even while befriending Frankie and her son.
Two things should be immediately clear: First, it’s impossible to invest in a situation such as this when one character is keeping the largest secret imaginable from the other. Second, Sam is an utterly detestable human being. He’s not just lying to his sister, but withholding salvation from a woman who leads an all-around terrible life. Sam needs some extra money himself, but the difference between Sam and his sister is that Sam doesn’t have a child to care for, and he works in a cushy, high-paying corporate job. Not exactly a complex moral conundrum. It doesn’t help that Sam is a massive ass to everyone in his life, up to and including his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), who is by all accounts the perfect woman.
I don’t need to ‘like’ characters in movies. I can even thoroughly hate them, so long as I find some reason to be invested in their plight, and Sam offers no such qualities. I’d rather punch him in the face than watch a two-hour movie about him, even with the talented Chris Pine in the role. Pine is quite good, and thanks to Star Trek, we know he can make flawed characters appealing. But Sam isn’t just flawed; he’s rotten, and at the point where he’s lying, withholding money, and keeping secrets from a struggling single mother, I have no earthly idea why I’m supposed to care.
With Frankie, a much better balance is achieved. She’s a severely damaged individual, one who makes plenty of mistakes, but we enjoy watching her because it’s clear she’s trying her hardest under difficult circumstances. She’s not a brilliant or complex character, but she is an interesting one with multiple layers, and Elizabeth Banks has never been better than she is here. It’s a legitimately great performance, and I could easily get behind a version of this story told from her point of view.
The real shame in positioning Sam and his lies at the center of the film is that it renders every scene he and Frankie share dramatically inert. Their time together is sharply written, and Pine and Banks share fine chemistry, but with such a massive, earth-shattering secret simmering beneath the surface, there’s no way to get emotionally attached to their friendship. We know the nature of it is going to drastically change once Sam’s secret comes out, so why care? It’s all lies, lies that exist only to create artificial drama. The film absolutely doesn’t need these contrivances to work; it would be a much stronger film if Sam simply told Frankie the truth, and they spent two hours of screen-time bonding over the father who neglected them both.
Though to be honest, the father is another sore point for me. Just for once, I’d like to see a movie where a father passes away and children mourn for him, rather than sulk about how much he mistreated them. Not every Hollywood movie has to portray healthy relationships between fathers and children, but we’ve reached a point where almost none of them do, and whatever thematic strength this trope once had has long since rubbed off. Kurtzman and Orci aren’t even brave enough to stick to this theme all the way through; the final scene bends over backwards in an attempt to ‘redeem’ the father, and it’s a complete betrayal of everything we’d learned up to that point. The revelation just rings hollow, rather than heartwarming, and ends the movie on by far its worst, most ineffective note.
While we’re dreaming, I’d also like Hollywood to start competently writing, directing, and casting preteen characters. It’s happening more and more, but not here; Frankie’s dysfunctional son Josh is a painful character to watch, a combination of every awful child cliché Hollywood has ever come up with. Cruel to his mother, rebellious for reasons that are never properly explored, far more precocious than any American 11-year-old could possibly be, and sporting the world’s silliest haircut (he must really idolize Tom Hanks’s character from The Da Vinci Code), I hate Josh with every fiber of my being, and I don’t know why any of the adults give a damn about him. The character is a miscalculation from top to bottom, one that drags the film down at every turn.
Still, it’s the decision to make this a story about secrets, rather than a drama about sincere human emotions, that kills People Like Us for me. I have no doubt it will be a crowd pleaser – films this shamelessly manipulative often are – but audiences deserve better, and until Hollywood gets over its most obnoxious dramatic ticks, I fear these sorts of films are never going to deliver.