Title: People Like Us
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde, Michael Hall D’Addario, Philip Baker Hall, Mark Duplass, Jon Favreau
Along with his screenwriting partner Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman has made a nice living out of figuring out how to string together talky scenes between lots of brawny action set pieces, in movies like “The Island,” “Star Trek,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and of course the hugely successful if just as hugely critically derided “Transformers” franchise. “People Like Us,” then, represents a somewhat unlikely directorial debut for Kurtzman, focusing as it does on the story of half-siblings heretofore unknown to one another. Despite an overlong running time and a problematic home stretch that blends mawkishness and contrivance, there’s enough dramatic heft here to favorably connect with particularly slightly older and sentimental general audiences.
After a washout on a big commission upon which he was counting, slick but emotionally stunted salesman Sam (Chris Pine) returns home to his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) to find out his semi-estranged father, a fairly successful record producer, has passed away. The pair fly across country to Los Angeles but miss the funeral, further chilling Sam’s relations with his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer).
A bigger shock awaits, however. His father’s lawyer hands Sam a shaving bag that contains $150,000 in cash, along with a note asking him to deliver it to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a bartender and the single mother of smart but trouble-prone 11-year-old Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). At first figuring her for a mistress, Sam lurks about, and is shocked to learn she’s his half-sister — the product of a fleeting affair his father had long ago. Sam befriends Frankie and Josh, but without telling them about the familial connection. As Sam weighs what to do, it becomes more obvious that he and Frankie are each arrested in their own way by the absence — physical in one instance, emotional in another — of their father.
In its WASP-y, very particular and pretty way, “People Like Us” plays a bit like a cross between “Ordinary People” and Cameron Crowe’s personal filmography, though vacuumed free of the latter’s distinct personality. But as the movie drags on, it loses both momentum and narrative credibility; the film’s third act is a mess, and while it arrives at a genuinely nice catharsis, the road it takes to get there isn’t all that convincingly paved.
The delight of “People Like Us,” and what most connects, starts with a solid technical package (Salvatore Totino shoots a Los Angeles that feels invested in the actual homes of these characters, instead of a tourist snapshot fantasy of the City of the Angels) and the attractive cast. Hall D’Addario is believable as shaggy-haired, wiseacre Josh, and Pine and Banks have a playful chemistry that helps transcend the creakier elements of their plotted relationship. (Like most attractive women of a certain age, and probably every female bartender ever, Frankie has her ears up with respect to being hit on, but the movie stalls way past the point of reason a discussion about Sam’s potential romantic interest, since he starts hanging around the pair like a live-in beau.)
The movie also unfortunately discards any sincere treatment or emotional heavy lifting with respect to Frankie’s alcoholism, opting instead to just flick out a couple forlorn character beats. (Needing physical companionship, Frankie takes momentary comfort in the arms of a doofus-y downstairs neighbor, played by Mark Duplass.) A film with more outside-of-the-box thinking and a grander ambition would have ditched or marginalized the cute kid and foregrounded Frankie’s dilemma in parallel fashion, perhaps even having her fall off the wagon, hard.
Of course, Orci and Kurtzman — who together crafted this story with Jody Lambert, another longtime friend, citing very loosely a couple of real-life inspirations — haven’t exactly made their names in Hollywood by straying from three-act structure. So “People Like Us” conforms to conventional plotting, even if some of the arguing and yelling feels designed to just kick the can down the road, and move us closer to “closure.”
Written by: Brent Simon