Alex Kurtzman obviously wants “People Like Us” to transcend its soap-operatic plot, but it doesn’t. The story of two half-siblings bonding after their father’s death comes across as forced and manipulative. That’s not only because the writing, which the long-time scripter-producer shared with two colleagues, lacks subtlety, but because his novice direction is so aggressive (especially as italicized by Salvatore Totino’s in-your-face cinematography, Robert Leighton’s hyperbolic editing and A.R. Rahman’s bombastic score) that it transforms what might have been sensitive performances into frantic mugging acts.
Chris Pine stars as Sam, a slick, hard-driving, motor-mouthed, shortcut-taking salesman who gets into trouble with his even more bellicose boss (Jon Favreau) in the barter game for a transport error that could not only cost their company dearly but get them into trouble with the FTC. To make matters worse, he learns that his estranged father Jerry—a music producer who peaked in the 1970s—has died, and has to travel with his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) back home for the funeral. There his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) greets him less with open arms than a disapproving glare.
But a surprise is in store when Sam meets with Jerry’s long-time lawyer Ike Rafferty (Philip Baker Hall), who gives him a case containing $150,000 with instructions to deliver it to somebody named Josh. It turns out that the intended recipient is Jerry’s grandson (Michael Hall D’Addario), the child of Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), the half-sister Sam never knew he had, and a recovering alcoholic trying to raise the boy alone via a job as a bartender in a glitzy hotel.
Sam, deeply in debt himself, considers just keeping the cash. But instead he inserts himself into Frankie and Josh’s lives—becoming a quasi-surrogate father figure to the boy, one of those super-precocious troubled kids who shoplifts and plays pranks like blowing up the school swimming pool, and a friend to his mom (pretending, for example, to be in AA himself). But in the process he doesn’t reveal his family connection to them.
His rationale for that is never satisfactory—he explains in the obligatory reconciliation episode toward the close, after the truth has caused a rift with Frankie, that he was frightened at the prospect. But the real reason for his withholding the fact comes for the writers, not the character: there’ simply wouldn’t be much narrative tension without it. Of course it does point toward one potentially unsettling direction—a possible romance between siblings. But the writers, and Sam, are quick to quash that idea, though in fact it does come up when Sam finally has to tell Frankie he’s her half-brother.
More importantly, though, Kurtzman and his cohorts use the device to pump up what might have been a delicate, touching family drama. They portray Sam as increasingly torn up by his kind-of imposture, a decision that takes Pine’s performance into ever more extravagant paroxysms of angst and regret. And though D’Addario shows, in his quieter scenes, a real sense of vulnerability, the writing too often depicts him as a smart-alecky sitcom tyke with a too-clever rejoinder for every situation. Pfeiffer benefits from a role than has real shading, but even she is encouraged to go to often for broke, and forced to recite dialogue with a soapy taste (as when she tells Sam that he has a talent for running away from problems). Banks, moreover, is presented as the same sort of hard-pressed but hard-boiled striver that Pfeiffer once portrayed—none too successfully—in her duet with Al Pacino in “Frankie and Johnny” twenty years ago. The rest of the cast is fine, with Wilde showing some real depth and Hall, as usual, nicely rumpled; but Favreau comes on far too strong.
Unfortunately, the characters here seem less like real people than figures who have stepped onto the big screen from weekday afternoon serial dramas—not “People Like Us” at all, but “People Like Them.”