Friday, July 06, 2012

"People Like Us": the family secrets that explode when an estate is settled

People Like Us”, directed by Alex Kurtzman and (like “The Help”) produced and distributed by the recent alliance of Touchstone and Dreamworks, comes across like a 50s Douglas Sirk family drama, but with a lot more urgency, hyperbole, and quick pacing (a requirement in the commercial screenwriting world today)  than is really believable.

Sam (Chris Pine) plays an aggressive commodity salesman, who works in an obscure area  of commercial barter.  I’m not familiar with it, but it reminds me of “cash flow management”.  He certainly follows the sales cultural dictum of “always be closing”.  While bragging about his latest deal, his boss informs him that the FTC is after him when a deal resulted in a physical transportation disaster, and that he could be liable personally.  (I don’t know if this world really works that way.) When he gets home, his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) tells him that his estranged father died.

Sam even plants a "nightmare" ruse not to make the flight from NY to LA, but his girlfriend finds his “misplaced” ID.  When he arrives, he deals with an angry mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), and an entire record empire left by the mysterious deceased man.  The dad's lawyer meets him, tells him he inherited only his father’s vinyl record collection, and gets a mysterious handbag filled with $150000 in cash, to be delivered to a half-sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) whom he never had known he had. 

His mother explains that she had known about the love child, and forced the mogul to “choose”.   Lillian insists that Sam is an only child, and should have no responsibility for this “sister”. The father had abandoned the girl completely (essentially a deadbeat dad, at the behest of his wife), as she grew up to become a single mom, going to AA meetings, raising a bright but troubled  middle school kid Josh (Michael Hall d’Addorio).  There’s an early scene where Josh throws some sodium he had stolen from a chemistry lab into the school natatorium. Remember that experiment in high school?  When the school tries to expel Josh and pursue Frankie, she threatens to sue back for giving him the knowledge of how to do it.  (Well, then, schools couldn’t teach chemistry, could they?  This is litigiousness as far as it goes.)

Sam, because of his own legal and financial troubles, is tempted to keep the money (dishonestly).  But he starts hanging around Frankie and growing closer to the kid as an uncle, while keeping the secret from Frankie.  Unbeknownst to him, the lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) eventually calls her and tells her about the money, setting up a final confrontation.
Without saying too much more, it’s hard to see how Sam will be in the clear from all the trouble he’s in. “We are family” becomes his excuse.  People get tempted. People make mistakes. For some of us, that's not enough.

But dramas about wills and estates always give writers a chance to pose some novel problems about hidden secrets and unexpected family responsibility. And this film does pose a new wrinkle. 

The film reminds me of a little film by Hilary Birmingham that I saw at a festival in Minneapolis in 2002, “The Truth About Tully”, about secrets in a Nebraska  farm family.  Other apt comparisons come from "One True Thing" and "Raising Helen". 

The official site is here  It.will use Shockwave. 

(Note: There was a typo in the title of the original post, a missing "e" in "People" and "t" in "that", causing a mismatch between title and url.) 

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