People Like Us comes to us from first-time director/writer Alex Kurtzman (his writing partner Robert Orci and Jody Lambert share writing credit) and it’s actually good for a debut picture. Considering that Kurtzman is best known for penning big screen blockbusters like Star Trek, Transformers and Cowboys and Aliens, a drama about a man and woman who were fathered by the same man but have never met is not what one would have expected.
Yet it’s the very type of film that Kurtzman claimed in a recent interview to have wanted to be making back when he was just getting started. This particular film hits home in a special way for him. The story involves “Sam” (Chris Pine) who is a fast-talking salesman for a firm engaged in the barter business. He lives in New York with his girlfriend “Hannah” (Olivia Wilde) who is about to go to law-school. Just as he scores a big deal that will solve all of his financial problems (we’re never really clued in to how bad these problems are, or that they even existed until later), there’s an issue. His boss needs him to make a couple of quick deals to “fix” the issue or else a government agency will be handing Sam his head on a platter.
In the midst of all this, Sam finds out that his father has just died. So he needs to go home for the funeral, but there’s a problem at the airport and he doesn’t arrive until long afterward. His mother “Lillian” (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not pleased that she sat through her husband’s funeral alone and makes her displeasure known, although she’s quite pleased to finally meet Hannah. Then when Sam meets with his father’s long-time lawyer (the always excellent Phillip Baker Hall) he learns that his father left a task for him. Deliver $150,000 in hundred dollar bills stuffed into a shaving kit to his grandson. The son of the half-sister Sam never knew existed until that moment.
Sam decides to at least get a look at his sister and she turns out to be an attractive woman named “Frankie” (Elizabeth Banks) who has her hands full with her son “Josh” (Michael Hall D’Addrio) who is 11, smart as a whip and is busy acting out to get attention. It turns out that “Frankie” is a bartender at an upscale hotel lounge who attends AA meetings when she’s not busy trying to parent a son who seems to just want to be left alone. Sam finds a way to enter the lives of Frankie and Josh while his own is falling to pieces. After seeing how Frankie reacted to the death of their father, Sam knows he can’t reveal his true identity because Frankie will be crushed and refuse to speak to him ever again.
It is in resolving this tension, and not so much watching Sam deal with his inner conflicts regarding the money, Frankie and his desire to make life better for Josh that give us the best moments of this film. Banks is perfect as the mom who has been overwhelmed by life since the day she discovered her father’s true nature and saw her “last sight of him” as his taillights receded in the distance. But Pine is misplaced and miscast, good in the few really active, action moments in the picture but not handling that inner conflict so well. The angst seems forced rather than genuine. Michelle Pfeiffer is lovely to look at and gets far too few moments on screen. The young D’Addrio handles his scenes with the aplomb and grace of someone beyond his years.
Kurtzman’s love for the action can be seen in fast cars, sudden cuts and a few other things that are more at home in a blockbuster with a 9 figure budget. But his comfort with the material is evident. Perhaps that is because he himself did not meet his own half-siblings until he was 30.
Whatever the reason, his work here is good enough to make People Like Us worth checking out.