People Like Us (**)

If there’s one sure way to ruin a film for me, it’s to knowingly base the entire plot around a contrivance that exists only because there’d be no movie without it. ‘People Like Us’ is the latest flick to fall into that category, and it’s a shame since this drama about family is otherwise well acted and suggests that co-writer/director Alex Kurtzman and his writing partner Roberto Orci can do more than just pen loud summer blockbusters. They’re not quite there yet though, as Kurtzman’s direction has a few issues and this film all too often plays like a soap opera. Like I said, the acting is strong, particularly Elizabeth Banks’ supporting turn (though Chris Pine and Michelle Pfeiffer are good too), but it’s in the service of an inferior product. The flick threatens to overcome its mediocrity on a few occasions, but it can never get over the hump, and I was left feeling rather disappointed when the lights came up. I will grant you that the film ends on a touching note, but it’s made hollow when you realize how out of place it is, considering the character it’s trying to redeem. The ending wasn’t earned in my eyes, so I couldn’t quite forgive the movie. It’s not a bad flick, but it’s not exactly a good one either. You can decide for yourself when the film opens next week, but I’m not recommending it.


Sam (Pine) is your garden variety smooth talking salesman with mounting debt in this film. He’s got a big commission, but his boss (Jon Favreau) takes it when the sale comes into legal trouble. As if this isn’t bad enough for Sam, he comes home to find out from his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) that his mother Lillian (Pfeiffer) called to say his father Jerry has died. He’s estranged from his parents and not eager to go to the funeral, but Hannah forces him. Lillian hasn’t seen Sam in years, and there’s obviously tension. Making matters worse, his father didn’t leave him any money, but his lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) tells Sam that he did give him a shaving kit. The kit is filled with $150,000 and instructions to give it to someone named Josh. Some investigating leads Sam to discover that Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) is the bad boy son of Frankie (Banks), who’s Jerry’s other child. His father had a whole other secret family before abandoning them, and neither knew of each other. Sam eventually befriends Frankie, but of course neglects to tell her how he knows her. This leads to the eventual blowup when all is revealed, and it honestly torpedos the flick. If the movie had focused on them learning to be siblings or Sam learning to be an uncle, things would have been much better. Alas…

The cast uniformly is able to take their underwritten roles and elevate them a bit with their performances. Elizabeth Banks turns in the best work in the film, playing a recovering alcoholic with a biting sense of humor and an eternal cloud of gloom hovering over her. This is among the better performances of her career, and whenever she’s on the screen, things are just a bit better than when they’re not. As for Chris Pine, he’s good in the lead, but you’ve seen this character before, and Pine isn’t really challenging himself at all. He’s charming and makes Sam more likable than he otherwise would have been though, so there’s that. Michelle Pfeiffer isn’t given too much to do until the end, and the script often fails her, but it’s always nice to see her in a movie…even if she’s mostly wasted. As the troublemaking kid, Michael Hall D’Addario is a bit one note, but he’s hardly bad. Jon Favreau basically turns in a cameo, with the same going for Philip Baker Hall, and Olivia Wilde is completely wasted (while also serving no purpose in the film overall). If there’s a reason to see this, it’s due to the acting, and that’s due to Banks.

I can’t say that I’ve been too big a fan of the scripts that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have turned in to date, but here they’re trying something new and Kurtzman is trying his hand behind the camera too. He’s not bad, but he does edit the film very strangely, almost as if this was some sort of action thriller, not a dramedy. The pace isn’t bad, but suffers due to a lack of plotting. The direction has room for improvement, but it’s not terrible at all. The script however, credited to Kurtzman (based on part of his own family history) and Orci, as well as Jody Lambert, fails on multiple levels. It’s nice that they’re trying to make a quiet film for adults, but they still rely on the plot contrivance of Sam not telling Frankie who he is, and I just can’t abide by that. There’s no movie if he tells her, so it’s all built on a lie. As previously noted, they end with a strong and emotional scene, but it’s disingenuous in who it’s trying to redeem. You’ll know when you see it…

‘People Like Us’ could (and probably should) have been a pretty good flick, but an annoying over-reliance on soap opera style contrivance shoots it in the foot. I wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t. Perhaps you’ll feel differently next week when the movie comes out in theaters, but I’m not inclined to tell you to go out and see it. There are certainly worse things in theaters, but there are far better ones as well. This film is just a missed opportunity.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!