Location, location, location. When it comes to dealing with broken families and the secrets that enshroud them, it makes no difference whether you live in La-La Land or blue Hawaii. Reconnecting with the family members you’ve ignored or the one you never knew existed is hard in either case, even if you’re Chris Pine. Yep, George Clooney, too.
While films centered around intense emotion and family dynamics are nothing new, they’re a rarity in these days of car chases, alien invasions and spandex-clad superheroes. Our contestants — People Like Us (2012) and The Descendants (2011) —are both about confronting those issues most of us would rather ignore. Both films are aimed at actual grown-ups — another rarity these days — and each looks at serious issues in distinctly different ways.
It’s arch L.A. melodrama vs. Hawaii mellow drama. May the stronger dysfunctional family win!
Fast-talking salesman Sam (Pine) is having a bad day. One minute, his latest deal is collapsing around his ears, his boss is threatening to fire him and the Federal Trade Commission is breathing down his neck. The next, his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) is telling him that his estranged father has died.
Reluctantly, Sam returns to L.A. to help put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with his distant mother. Sam’s father, a well-known record producer, has left him a magical man-cave full of vinyl record albums and a shaving bag filled with $150,000 in cash. Unfortunately, the money’s not for him, which he learns from a mysterious note his father left directing him to deliver the dough to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), neither of whom has Sam ever heard of.
Things get more complicated when Sam discovers Frankie is actually his half-sister and Josh his nephew. He manages to insinuate himself into their lives without revealing his relationship to them, although why he does so is somewhat unclear. As he, Frankie and Josh get to know each other, Sam is forced to reconsider everything he thought he knew about his family and re-examine his own life in the process.
Matt King (Clooney) isn’t having a very good time in paradise. He’s being pressured by his large extended family to sell 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land that has been in their family for generations, a sale which will leave them all incredibly wealthy but will change the character of the island forever. A descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Matt is the family’s sole trustee, so the decision to sell rests squarely on his shoulders. It also comes at the worst possible time, as a tragic boating accident has left his wife Elizabeth in a coma from which her doctors say she will not recover.
After years of admittedly being “the back-up parent, the understudy” Matt finds himself as an only parent to his two daughters, precocious 10-year- old Scottie (Amara Miller) and prickly, 17-year-old, in-his-face Alex (Shailene Woodley, in a breakout performance). Matt’s world is turned even further upside down when Alex reveals to him that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Betrayed and confused, Matt attempts to track down and confront the man who cuckolded him, dragging Scottie, Alex and Alex’s halfwit friend Sid along for the revelatory ride.
The script for People Like Us, written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & Jody Lambert, is loosely based on Kurtzman’s real-life story of meeting a long-lost half-sister. It’s an intimate tale, but first-time director Kurtzman, known for his script work on such films as Transformers, Star Trek and Cowboys & Aliens, seems to direct it like an action film.
Writer-director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants moves at a more leisurely pace. It’s a deceptively simple story, and yet its loose, wandering structure works so well. There’s not a single wasted moment as the film skillfully weaves it’s multiple story lines into a climax that somehow manages to be both unavoidable and surprising.
For People Like Us, freeway miles worth of heart and good intentions aren’t enough to get past a contrived and often-too-predictable script. There might be a lot of good reasons for not telling someone that you’re related, but this film doesn’t come up with them. Of course, had Sam revealed the relationship up front, there would have been no movie. Instead, his choice to conceal the potentially life-changing news from Frankie feels false and unnatural.
Luckily, the cast of People Like Us is mostly able to overcome the script’s contrivance. Pine does a wonderful job as the relatable Sam, making him likable despite his selfish choice. Elizabeth Banks is compelling as the tough yet vulnerable single mom Frankie. Michelle Pfeiffer and Olivia Wilde are also quite good, if woefully underused. The chemistry between Pine and Banks is great — so great, in fact, that it’s more than a little disturbing when you remember they’re supposed to be siblings.
While The Descendants may be a more contemplative look at the often corrosive effects of lies within families, it is no less engaging, primarily because of Clooney’s surprisingly effective (and Oscar-nominated) turn as a man just trying to keep his head above the crashing waves of emotional loss and spousal betrayal. Woodley is also fantastic as the troubled teenage daughter who must grow up, fast. And a character not credited but nonetheless important to the film’s overall sensibility is Hawaii itself. Lush and laid back (at least on the surface), the islands are hands-down a more attractive canvas for family drama than the crowds, cars and thick air of the L.A. basin.
People Like Us is uneven but endearing, and its often humorous observations help the viewer more easily relate to, and absorb, its emotional revelations. And yet, The Descendants naturally blends humanity, pathos and wit for a more thoroughly satisfying — and heartfelt — result. People Like Us just can’t compete.