People Like Us zones in on Sam (Chris Pine), back home after the death of his introvert father. Surrounding him is a disheveled mother and $150,000, meant for the half-sister he never knew. There’s even a nephew involved, a girlfriend, and an unresolved case with the FTC over shady business practices. Sam is a modern day barter in the corporate world whose mistakes begin to weigh on his personal life.
People Like Us never loses the plural part of its title though. It’s smart writing to baseline the drama with a comedic center then branch out from there, developing equally engrossing side characters. Sam’s efforts to connect with his sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) – a single mother crammed in a small apartment with her deviant son – develops the core plot thread. The progression feels natural, leading to an eventual breakdown of unexpected barriers and emotional lows. Sam’s lack of coping mechanisms and inability to deal with these dramatic shifts in his life build something the film can work around.
Precise balance is necessary to work out the complex structure, this narrative based around first-time feature director Alex Kurtzman’s own experiences. If it feels personal, there’s a reason for it. Loose bonds strengthen over memories as Sam re-enters the life of his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), a character that makes sense given her place in a marriage with an under-appreciated record producer. Without a word on screen from her now passed husband, there’s that sense they were meant for each other, never better than a late night stroll to a hill overlooking the city with Sam. She’s a free spirit, if only because of who her husband was.
Kurtzman receives an assist from cinematographer Salvatore Totino, capturing a beautiful warmth and soft tone through the visuals. Soothing violins back the drama, sort of an all-encompassing effort to make this material stick. It’s hard to hate this piece based on intangibles, and this is more from Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks than we’ve seen before. As two leads with important distance between them, their connection skirts a threshold that pushes away melodrama with comedic flirtations and sensible improv.
People Like Us has one job, this of course beyond dramatic entertainment: Being believable. The crux of the film is the difficulty with family, establishing friendship, and awkwardly dealing with the harm caused by familiar situations that occurred miles apart. It’s a total success in bringing the audience into this life changing shift while balancing the needs of the film. Even if the structure rings familiar – almost dire in that it clings to a weird romantic comedy style – People Like Us pulls itself together for heartwarming closure.
Brought to the screen with a glaze of occasionally spiky grain, varying flesh tones, and grand sharpness, the encode out of Dreamworks is a bit haphazard at times, saved by source photography. Fine detail certainly has a way of leaping out at the viewer, strong in close or with a bit of distance from the lens. Resolution feels striking, even a cut above many modern features. What it won’t win in style it will nail in appreciable texture.
Baked with a heavy lighting scheme brings out the imagery while bleaching out parts of the frame. There are few excuses made for an exterior, simulated sun. It’s just as involved as the characters, and a savior of sometimes jumpy black levels. They seem confused as to when they’re needed the most, or only pop in at their peak half the time.
While People is judicious with primaries, timing will carry them into a different place. There’s zero consistency with regards to flesh tones, wacky oranges invading skin while the next scene lessens the bulk, reverting flesh to a natural tone. The less said for the teal backing here and there the better, but in general terms, this piece likes to layer on the color. There’s no attempt to exhibit emotion through the palette which often grounds the material in what is, in many ways, a happy story about connecting. It just doesn’t always feel like it.
The final battle is grain, and even taken with the other concerns, People Like Us isn’t a mess. Consider it jumpy, sure, but the often crumbling encode doesn’t hamper the image severely. A scene inside a laundromat is a perfect case for ensuring compression is uptight, backgrounds swarming a little. That said, the illusion of film isn’t lost so much as it’s occasionally impeded.
Over the credits, someone is performing a sound check to introduce the film. Voices carry out of the center, hit the stereos, and music will make a slow glide into the full spectrum of this DTS-HD effort. It’s a fun bit of mixing, a way to establish the film isn’t content with sticking to stock drama styles. This one moves a bit.
Car horns, engines, and other sounds will pan around as the visuals see fit. Dialogue will typically hone in on a single, expected channel though. The track does more than you’d think, including a small explosion and quite hearty bar scene with an outstanding LFE push. Patron’s chatter will spread wide creating atmosphere that builds before a quiet conversion to follow. Balance is sharp too. Great work for a movie that doesn’t bring any expectations.
Like commentaries? You’d better. Director Alex Kurtzman leads the charge in plenty of them, the first with stars Elizabeth Banks & Chris Pine, the second comes with writer Judy Lambert, while the third covers eight specific scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer. If that’s still not enough of Kurtzman for you, he handles the introductions on five deleted scenes. At least he’s out of the frame for a fun little blooper reel.
Number One with a Bullet is an enjoyable making-of with production values worth taking notice of. Taco Talk is a collection of improv done during a key conversation in the film, while Dreamworks handles trailer duties afterward.