Socko first acts are kids’ stuff but second and especially third acts can kill the best filmmakers. This film’s director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman, in his directorial debut, delivers a compelling and emotional ending to his dramedy about a man who discovers he has a sister he knew nothing about. But the opening gives me pause.
As written, there’s nothing wrong with it. The movie does introduce you to a rather unlikable young man named Sam (Chris Pine), a sleazy, fast-talking New York-based salesman who buys other companies’ extra or unneeded products and then resells them in ways that barely skirt government regulations. Then one day he learns that his latest scheme didn’t skirt government regulations so he and his furious boss (a cameo by Jon Favreau) are up to their you-know-what in investigations and possible lawsuits.
Since these troubles are not what the movie is about but rather a background subplot, you remain confident Sam will get some sort of redemption later in the film.
But Kurtzman doesn’t make it easy on either his hero or his audience. Sam is noisy, abrupt, self-centered, duplicitous and rude. Meanwhile, the editing is almost as abrupt and the camera develops the nervous habit of being in constant motion even when no camera moves are necessary. Then somewhere in the second act the film calms down and its central figure comes into clearer focus.
In the midst of all his personal turmoil, which necessarily involves his long-suffering live-in girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), Sam gets a phone call telling him his estranged father has died in Los Angeles. He tries his best to avoid even going to the coast, but he and Hannah do make it out to see his mom, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), after the memorial service. (For that she gives him a slap.)
His dad’s lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) then hands him his only bequest — a battered old shaving kit jammed with currency worth $150,000 and a note asking him to deliver it to someone named Josh. Who the hell is Josh? Sam does a little snooping around and soon enough learns that Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) is a rebellious pre-teen whose mom Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) happens to be Sam’s sister, one his deceased father never told him about.
Given his extraordinary troubles, the temptation is great to keep the dough and forget about the kid and his mother. But he is too fascinated/scared about his secret family. Once Hannah returns to NYC, Sam ingratiates himself with both to learn more — and to make a decision what to do about the $150,000.
This, of course, causes him to learn more about his dad, and in a way about himself. Since he doesn’t reveal his identity to either one, Frankie thinks he’s on the make for her and Josh thinks he has a great new pal, who is actually the first real friend he has had ever.
As the film gets deeper into its characters’ complex lives — Frankie is AA and boy has all sorts of social problems — the writers, Kurtzman, his longtime writing partner Roberto Orci and Judy Lambert, make you start to care about not only Sam but his new family. Also and thankfully, the nervous filmmaking ticks drop away.
Pine is then able to locate his character’s redeeming side, the one that puts family and not himself first. Banks, one of the American cinema’s better actresses, not only delivers a fine performance but you sense she has taken after her dad so you also get an idea of what Sam’s music-producer may have been like.
D’Addario, whose career already includes the Broadway stage, shows much promise in a role that probably needed more screen time to get a better sense of his many problems. You might also wish Pfeiffer (pictured, right) had a juicier role but this one isn’t too bad. In fact, you probably could make a completely different but no less compelling movie about this story from her point of view.
Turns out the filmmaker, Kurtzman, has a half-sister he never met until he was an adult, Orci’s aunt did discover her father had a secret family and Lambert’s dad, an L.A. record producer, provides the background for Sam’s fictional dad. Write what you know, right?
The production is first cabin all the way with solid tech credits although I do wish A.R. Rahman’s score had been a little less busy.
Opens: June 29 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present a K/O Paper Products production
Cast: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D’Addario, Michelle Pfieffer, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sara Mornell, Philip Baker Hall, Jon Favreau
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriters: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & Judy Lambert
Producers: Robert Orci, Bobby Cohen, Clayton Townsend
Executive producer: Alex Kurtzman
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Ida Random
Music: A.R. Rahman
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Robert Leighton
PG-13 rating, 115 minutes