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Tale of Two First-Time Directors: ‘People Like Us’ and ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’ Debut at LAFF

Tale of Two First-Time Directors: 'People Like Us' and 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' Debut at LAFF

There are times when writer-directors should be allowed to direct their own material. And there are time when they should not. I would argue that "Star Trek" and "Alias" co-scribe Alex Kurtzman has more than earned his shot at directing his semi-autobiographical relationship drama "People Like Us" (June 29) even if it isn't entirely successful. What goes wrong with it isn't a question of his abilities as a filmmaker; it's more about how studios need to reinvent how to make accessible commercial dramas for a wide audience. I found myself wanting to see the grittier, more personal indie version of Kurtzman's beautifully written movie, not the carefully-wrought, glossy, well-lit, musically manipulated one.

Would Kurtzman have sacrificed some budget and maybe his two terrific leads? Maybe. With "People Like Us," two confident actors, "Star Trek" star Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks ("The Hunger Games"), show that they can carry a film. Does Kurtzman hit a four-star, Oscar-worthy home run that will inspire critics to urge readers to run to their local multiplex?

No. And that's the reason why dramas are so scary to studios. They have reason to be wary of these execution and critic dependent movies that have to be 100% winners. So few of them are. How could they be? Part of the problem is that they make too few of them. No one knows what to expect anymore.

Will audiences show up? Hard to say. As the studios neglect and ignore the wide variety of genres that used to flourish in Hollywood's adult-focused heyday–forcing them to migrate to television and cable– folks in Hollywood as well as moviegoers are losing two sets of skills: how to make and how to watch westerns, musicals, dramas and melodramas. It's like losing a language. That's why underserved adult fans–who are today's most frequent moviegoers, as opposed to fickle and distracted young males — will likely respond to this movie, not kids.

On the plus side, this DreamWorks/Disney release only cost $16 million, which makes it easier to come out ahead. But I question Disney's decision to push it out on 2000 screens. They argue that at the height of summer it's the only way to counteract the big guns. And it may be that knowing that "People Like Us" won't get 100% great reviews is a good reason to buy ad dollars to sell the movie to filmgoers. But Pine and Banks are not marquee draws at the box office. Pine is only a star in the "Star Trek" franchise as Captain Kirk. Which is all the more reason for the skillful stage actor to show what he can do, diversify and build his audience. (At the premiere after-party, when I told the tall actor that I saw him in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," he grinned with pride. "That's my favorite thing," he said.)

But every time one of these movies fails, it makes it harder for other studio execs to step up to the plate. It's a vicious circle. So give Kurtzman, who has risen in the Hollywood firmament with partner Bob Orci not only as a writer of big-budget behemoths such as "Star Trek" and "Transformers" and yes, "Cowboys & Aliens," but produced commercial smart romantic comedy "The Proposal," points for bravery. (Here's my "Star Trek" flipcam interview with Kurtzman and Orci.)

Here are two early LAFF reviews:

THR: "As overcranked as it is — the film is directed as if it were an action drama, with two or three times more cuts than necessary — People Like Us has a persuasive emotional pull at its heart that's hard to deny."

Variety: "Genuine emotions barely win out over soapy complications in People Like Us."

On the other hand, Lorene Scarfaria's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is a case where Focus Features should not have allowed her to direct. The story is that the writer of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" insisted on directing. Well, they should have just said no. Why? Because as hard as it is to write and direct a drama, it's even harder to do a romantic pre-apocalyptic romantic comedy.

Keira Knightley has never been worse, and she's a strong actress. Steve Carell, as good as he can be, is also lost and stuck with repetitive dewy reaction close-ups. So many things are wrong, from the wildly careening tone to set and costume choices and music cues. It's easy to see how the strong script with a potentially commercial premise–how humans behave when a large object is about to crash into our planet, setting it on fire?–could get the green light. But this movie is also going to get trashed.

Here's a round-up of early LAFF reviews.

TOH's Sophia Savage:

The high point of Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is when someone shouts that they want to do heroin to Radiohead, because why not? The world is ending. The apocalyptic romantic comedy is a tonal misfire, with tired pacing and redundant close-ups. Keira Knightley continues her over-acting streak, while Steve Carell plays his pathetic insurance salesman with the same likeability that infuses all his work. The actual apocalypse is secondary and mostly unseen, while the relationship between their Penny and Dodge characters casually develops as they accept the end as nigh. Its premise sets the movie up to go in a countless number of directions, and sadly it chooses the dullest, most cliched.

THR:

"Essentially, Scafaria has re-imagined Lars Von Trier's planet-smashing gloomfest Melancholia as a quirky road movie in the spirit of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt,..[Scafaria's] directing debut is a superior effort, its slightly uneven tone redeemed by the reliably sympathetic Carell in a typically deadpan suburban everyman role,..Scafaria maintains a cheerfully ironic and unpredictable tone for the first half of the movie, scoffing at vanity and self-delusion with sharply observed social observation,.. [It] leaves us with a disappointingly banal observation: all you need is love. It is hard to imagine either Alexander Payne or Lars Von Trier letting such fortune-cookie whimsy sweeten life's harsh lessons."

What Culture:

"A sweet, inoffensive but ultimately awkward film with unmet aspirations of indie darling-hood. It’s a film that touches on a number of potentially interesting themes about its doomsday setting, but that never focuses convincingly in on any, and certainly never reaches a satisfying rhythm. The problem here is quite simple: this end of the world drama – come comedy – come rom-com, lacks a clear intention, it decides it actually wants to be a romantic comedy too late toward the end of the second act and suffers deeply as a result of it’s indecision,..These scenes are a nice reprieve, but eventually get discarded to give way to a bland and forgettable romantic comedy that doesn’t take full advantage of it’s doomsday context. Once it finally decides to go somewhere, it’s unfortunately nowhere special."

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