It’s a toss-up as to whether the title is a succinct statement of human commonality — People Like Us — or, rather, a dire plea to the audience in the hopes of engendering good will, i.e., “People … [please] Like Us?”
While the plot concerns the former, the tone unfortunately sinks to the latter, with the second half of the movie attempting to win over our hearts with sappy sentimentality, far more fitting for a schmaltzy cable network such as the Hallmark Channel than the movie house.
To be somewhat fair, this is new territory for first-time director Alex Kurtzman, who had previously written many an action film with writing partner Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Cowboys & Aliens, the first two Transformers, Mission Impossible III, as well as television’s Fringe). With an additional credit to third writer Jody Lambert, while this well-intentioned movie opens with a certain snap, it ultimately stumbles. Kurtzman and Orci needn’t have discarded their muscular action rhythms that had worked so well for them in the past; sadly, it’s just that kind of zing that is sorely lacking here.
Loosely inspired by Kurtzman’s own family history — his father having sired two children with a prior spouse — Kurtzman had been toying with the idea of what it must feel like to run into someone he’d met, who would turn out to be his own sibling. And, per Kurtzman, on the same day he was working on that concept, he attended a party in which a woman walked up to him and said, “I’m your sister.”
That storyline echoes in People Like Us, where Chris Pine’s wheeler-dealer Sam goes out of his way to miss attending his estranged father’s funeral in L.A. His well-meaning girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) eventually gets him to the West Coast, where he manages to show up for an appointment with the family attorney, assuming he’ll reap a healthy portion of his successful record-producer father’s estate. He assumes wrong. Instead, he’s given his dad’s well-worn leather shaving bag, stuffed with $150,000 cash and a terse note instructing him to deliver the money to a woman and her son, with an additional request that Sam take care of them. Sam soon discovers that the woman (Elizabeth Banks’ Frankie) and her son (Michael Hall D’Addario’s Josh) is his half-sister and his nephew. Unlike Kurtzman’s reality, this fictional departure examines the members of his father’s secret, second family that the thirtysomething Sam had no knowledge of previously.
Will the financially-strapped Sam, in legal trouble of his own, give the $150K to a total stranger? Will he tell the woman that he’s her brother? If so, when? Will she be mad? If so, just how mad? And if he does offer her the money, given her own feelings of anger and abandonment toward her decades’ absent father, will she accept this monetary apology that’s much too little, much too late?
If this sounds like some overheated imbroglio on any daytime drama … it is. With scenes of recrimination and anger followed by heartfelt apologies, flowing into more scenes of recrimination and anger, accompanied by even more apologies, the story grows tedious. We wait for seeming hours before Sam finally spills the truth.
It’s not that this film didn’t have promise. The characters can be compelling: Pine’s Sam is introduced as a charming, fast-talking con man, reminiscent of a young Vince Vaughn … a comparison made even stronger when we see that his boss is none other than Jon Favreau (Swingers, anyone?). Banks’ Frankie is similarly appealing, a street-smart bartender and recovering alcoholic who knows how to get the upper hand. When the principal at her son’s school is about to expel young Josh for blowing up the pool, Frankie finesses the situation, threatening to sue the science department for the fact that explosives were inappropriately within reach of the oh-so-impressionable children.
The leads simply deserved a better vehicle. Pine once again impresses, as adept at a light comic touch as he is with the frequent dramatic turns. Though Banks is more engaging in the first half of the film, it’s certainly not her fault when the story demands that she act enraged, expressing her “humiliation” when she finally learns the truth. Humiliated because her half-brother is attempting to give her $150K? As well as rushing to her rescue when she needs help with her son? We should all be so humiliated …
Other strong performances come from Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam’s newly-widowed mother (burdened with secrets of her own), and the young Michael Hall D’Addario in his feature film debut, a panoply of emotions playing across his extremely expressive face. It will be a delight to watch this talented newcomer as his acting career progresses.
Kurtzman and Orci have given us quite a few superb films; unfortunately, this is not one of them.
Rating on a scale of 5 folks who are most definitely not like us: 2.5
Release date: June 29, 2012
Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay by: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & Jody Lambert
Cast: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde, Jon Favreau, Michael Hall D’Addario
Running Time: 115 minutes