The King of Mistakes
Going to the movies is supposed to be a deeply emotional experience.
“Paper is paper, but goods are good.” Pitching his latest corporate barter to a new client, Sam (Chris Pine) smiles and nods, earnestly. “You’re getting in on the ground floor of money.” The trade sounds good enough, apparently, for in the next scene of People Like Us, Sam is looking supremely satisfied. Er, until he learns that a previous deal has gone terribly wrong, and now the Federal Trade Commission is investigating, he owes his boss (Jon Favreau) $84,000, and oh yes, his father has died.
It’s a lot of crisis to pack into a couple of minutes’ worth of movie, but it’s just the beginning for Sam. From here, he’s headed to Los Angeles, where he’ll be reckoning with his resentful mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) and explaining to his enormously patient girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde). Seems he hasn’t been home in a decade, owing to a strained relationship with the dead dad, a music producer who indulged in his share of industry-related bad behavior. You won’t be surprised to hear—though Sam seems to be—that the son’s pattern of fast-talking, risk-taking, and responsibility-shirking is modeled on his father’s, or that a life lesson is lurking. This last is introduced in the form of a monogrammed shaving kit full of money ($150,000), delivered by dad’s lawyer (Philip Baker Hall), along with a note instructing Sam to make sure it gets to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), who is, it turns out, Sam’s half-sister.
Still more crisis packed into brief minutes. While you might guess that this bit of news changes Sam’s understanding of who he is, not to mention who his mother is or who his father might have been, he’s suddenly sent into a grinding tailspin. He locates Frankie, then secretly follows her to an AA meeting, where she so too helpfully shares her life story with the group: she knew her dad until she was eight, at which point she and her apparently saintly mother were abandoned: since then, she’s been struggling with commitment and addiction and single motherhood.
After absorbing all this news from the back of the AA meeting room, Sam looks stricken, feels guilty, and does exactly the wrong thing next. Introducing himself to Frankie as a fellow alcoholic, he just happens to come by her workplace (she’s a bartender, and yes, everyone sees this is a bad idea), where he plies her with questions about her dead dad. Then he follows her 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), into a CD store, where he advises him not to shoplift the bad music he’s about to shoplift, but instead to expand his horizons and purchase good music. “This is what you’re looking for,” Sam urges, handing his half-nephew an instructional pile of Television, Gang of Four, and the Buzzcocks. Josh briefly resists, warning this stranger not “try to grab my balls,” but it only takes a couple of minutes (again), for the kid to go along, and go on to appreciate the attention from the father-figure he never knew he was hoping to meet.
The daunting dearth of fathers in People Like Us is imprecisely but relentlessly met by an abundance of mothers, from Lillian to Frankie to Hannah (whose nurturing and teaching and supporting of her strenuously arrested boyfriend is admirable, if also unhealthy). It’s one thing for Josh to act like an 11-year-old, another for Sam to do so, and still another for the movie to hinge on Sam’s inability to tell basic truths to anyone. That’s not to say he’s the only liar here—Lillian keeps all kinds of secrets about her marriage, Frankie is “fired” by her son’s therapist for lying in front of him—but it is to say that Sam’s lie, the one that sustains the plot, is too nosily metaphorical. And so he doesn’t just lie, but he agonizes over lying, spending long montagey nights in his father’s office, playing or breaking his records, drinking his booze, examining his photos with Alice Cooper and AA sober chips. Lillian, just as unconvincingly, seems to sleep through these binges, or maybe just can’t acknowledge them on next mornings.
The film doesn’t have time, apparently, to excavate the reasons for Lillian’s silence. She tells a story or two about her husband (he was charming and clever and mean) and sneaks bites of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies to indicate her repressions—but People Like Us doesn’t grant her a convincing past or even a very coherent present. Neither does it imagine what Hannah sees in her childish man, why she . Instead, and quite contrary to all the promotional jabber about the film’s showcasing of “real people”, it uses Lillian and Hannah as devices, not so much to complicate Sam’s experience, but to articulate his choices for him, and for us.
That’s not so say it’s not a bit of a relief to see a summer movie without spandex or space ships. But the fundamental plotline here is the same as for the comic book movies or the Apatow clones: a boy needs to sort out his identity. Good for him that he has all these moms to help him do it. Bad for us that we have to see the same story on screen, again.