people2.jpg
Zade Rosenthal/Disney
Pfeiffer is too good for this shit.
The Dinner : Crab cakes, at Ten Mercer (10 Mercer St.).

The Movie : People Like

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Michelle Pfeiffer Will Have the Crab Cakes

people2.jpg
Zade Rosenthal/Disney
Pfeiffer is too good for this shit.
The Dinner: Crab cakes, at Ten Mercer (10 Mercer St.).

The Movie: People Like Us, at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Screenplate: We will always have a regional bias toward Michelle Pfeiffer, since she starred and sang so effectively in 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys, one of the best films to have been shot in Seattle. And while she's not the star of People Like Us, she brings a little gravitas to the picture--three Oscar nominations (the last in '93 for Love Field) and a long rise from arm-candy roles (see Scarface) to the inevitable mother-of-the-star parts. Here, the supposed star is the bland, handsome Chris Pine (Capt. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot) as Sam. Also on hand are Elizabeth Banks (as Sam's unknown half-sister Frankie) and Olivia Wilde (as his girlfriend). They're both young and pretty, like Pfeiffer in the '80s, both trying to forge a lasting career like hers. Which, I suspect Pfeiffer would tell them, may even be more difficult for young women in Hollywood today. That's a place dominated by superhero sequels and special-effects movies created by the likes of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the team behind People Like Us, their first movie without aliens, explosions, and car chases ...

People Like Us is one of those based-on-a-true-story scenarios that has you asking, Well, why not just make a documentary instead? Director and co-writer Kurtzman had the unsettling experience of discovering an unfaithful father and a secret half-sister. His perfect family was not so perfect, a common realization even without the mystery sibling. From that starting point, People Like Us has been built into a melodrama/detective story as protagonist Sam (the Kurtzman figure) begins stalking Frankie (Banks) and her tween-age son after flying from New York to L.A. for their father's funeral. (Frankie is not invited or acknowledged; Sam arrives late.) Sam was estranged from his late father, a music producer whose lawyer hands him $150,000 in cash for the benefit of Frankie's 11-year-old boy. Conveniently, Sam's massively in debt, so he harbors the cash--and hides his identity--while befriending Frankie and her kid Josh for most of the movie.

A few scenes hint at the obvious dramatic path not taken here: That Sam and Frankie should find themselves so simpatico that she should interpret his interest as being romantic and ... that's a different incest movie a different writer-director team might make. Unfortunately, People Like Us is not that movie. In fact, it's the worst movie I saw at SIFF this year: a gooey melodramatic stew that posits how callow, commitment-phobic Sam is gradually redeemed by bonding with his newfound nephew and sister. His selfish father gains bit of redemption, too, in the film's final minutes. But Sam's poor mother, Lillian (Pfeiffer)? No such luck. She's written as a needy, hectoring nag. It's a thankless role to play.

Unless your name is Meryl Streep, unless your director is Nora Ephron, there's not much room for a woman over 50 in American cinema. (You can look up Pfeiffer's age on IMDb, a division of Amazon.) In summer blockbusters like Transformers, one of Kurtzman and Orci's many action scripts, mothers never exist; there's usually just the dad and the grown son trying to please him or outdo him. Here, Sam has major resentment issues with his dead father (not the least of which is the child out of wedlock), and that ought to be enough conflict for any one film. Lillian's presence is gratuitous--she's just another obstacle for Sam to overcome, an impediment to his growth to manhood. She exists simply to scold and go to the hospital. With two bad parents in the Harper household, Lillian gets it worse by still being around for Sam to blame. In this way, like all Kurtzman-Orci summer products, there's a tremendous youth bias in People Like Us. Old people need to get out of the way. Parents are written mainly to sicken, die, or beg forgiveness from their damaged children. When Sam, Frankie, and Josh take a happy drive together, winding up the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible to a seafood restaurant on the beach, they never consider taking Lillian, because she'd be a total downer. For lunch, they play with their food (crab), mug for their video camera, and laugh gaily. If Lillian were there, she'd tell them to mind their manners and chew with their mouths closed.

As would I. Yet the movie put me in the mood for crab in a more grown-up environment. Eaten at the bar at Ten Mercer, the Dungeness cake appetizers (served with fries for $14) are a tidy late-night meal, washed down with a Tanqueray-and-tonic. The fries are fine-cut and not too greasy. The crab cakes are tender, best eaten with fork, not your hands. Ten Mercer isn't the kind of place Sam would like, since there are no TV screens playing sports; and his sister Frankie is an alcoholic, so she couldn't come either. Lillian would like it just fine, however, especially without the presence of her ungrateful son.

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