Well-acted but trite "People Like Us" should've been messier

People Like Us (2012)
115 min., rated PG-13.

You can practically set your watch to "People Like Us." It's a pleasantly appealing sit and made with the best of intentions, but after everything is set up, you'll just be marking time as the film checks off a checklist. After co-writing such spectacle-focused tentpoles as "Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers," "Star Trek," and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," writer-director Alex Kurtzman brings more of a human touch to his feature debut and that's refreshing to find in an action-filled summer. Kurtzman draws from his own family history, but a much more honest and moving film could have come out of this personal story. While the parts are greater than the whole of "People Like Us," it should still hit home for those with siblings, especially estranged ones.

Sam Harper (Chris Pine), a fast-talking New York corporate facilitator, is down on his luck. The same day he is threatened with an ultimatum concerning a bartering deal, Sam learns of his music-producing father passing away from cancer. Conveniently forgetting his wallet to miss the flight to the Los Angeles funeral with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), they arrive afterwards, much to the disappointment of his estranged mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer). Then once the family's lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) hands Sam his late father's shaving kit full of $150,000 in cash, he's expected to deliver the dough to "Josh Davis." Sam ends up tracking down (read: stalking) this one Josh, realizing Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) is a precocious, 11-year-old on the verge of being expelled from school. His mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), is a single bartender in AA and happens to be Sam's half-sister that he never knew. Frankie resents the fact that she doesn't even exist in her absent father's obituary, so Sam holds back his relation with her but starts to bond with Frankie and Josh.

Co-writing the screenplay with Roberto Orci (2011's "Cowboys & Aliens") and their college friend Jody Lambert, Kurtzman's story might be a true one—an "inspired by true events" reel assures us of that from the start—but that doesn't necessarily make it worthwhile. Its Lifetime Movie trappings are undeniable, as there are no great complications or revelations here beyond the superficial. Having Sam lie and delay handing over the inheritance to Frankie and Josh makes most of "People Like Us" a foregone conclusion, trading complexity for contrivance and feel-good formula. To a fault, the film is too streamlined in its narrative and character beats, even if the semi-biographical story comes from a true place. Sam and Frankie may as well be partners in a Hollywood romantic-comedy, one of them keeping a secret from the other before they have a falling-out and then reconvene by the end. Like Frankie and Josh, the viewer will feel strung along, until the "Hey, I'm your brother" bomb is dropped.

"People Like Us" is a case of the actors being better than the film they're in. Though the character is potentially incorrigible and at times dislikable, the charismatic Chris Pine makes the flawed Sam mostly sympathetic. As Frankie, Elizabeth Banks' portrayal is excellent, immediately working her way into the viewer's positive graces with smart humor and scarring vulnerability. Frankie is hard-edged, a trait shared with Sam that was most likely passed down from their father, but a single, working mom trying her best to get through the tough stuff in life. A touching scene in a laundromat, where Frankie digs up her last memory of her father, is a testament to Banks' understatement as an actress. Newcomer Michael Hall D'Addario could have very well been an unctuous-precocious moppet who utters the cutest lines not even a grown man could think up on the fly. That last part is right—his rebellious Josh does get the best lines—but he's actually hugely appealing, stealing every scene he's in. An intentionally unglamorous but still-lovely Michelle Pfeiffer dependably stirs in her role as Lillian, a grieving woman who recalls the good in her late husband. She makes the most of her small scenes, lending meat and gravitas. Pfeiffer and Pine share a nice moment in the Hollywood Hills, where they sit on a bench and smoke a joint. In an even more underwritten part, Olivia Wilde is a level-headed catch as Hannah, a young woman so smart, driven, and compassionate that one wonders how her and Sam met. Actor-director Mark Duplass also has a throwaway role as Frankie's neighbor and sometimes-sleeping partner Ted.

The location of L.A. is usually either so glossified and glitzy or grimy in movies that another tale set in the City of Angels sounds like a wasted backdrop. Here, Kurtzman (a born-and-raised native) makes L.A. a more homegrown place, making use of Henry's Tacos and Rhino Records. Though pleasingly never as soapy, cloying, and heavy-handed as it could have been, "People Like Us" is still too trite and tidy. Like a tug-of-war between authenticity and artificiality, it settles somewhere in the middle. Given the intriguing dramatic premise and a gifted cast so ready to sell genuine emotion, the film could have been something special as a therapeutic study of unacknowledged siblings, but it ultimately sells out for rigged, simplistic writing. It at least ends strong, in its most affecting moment, with a home video that Sam shows to Frankie. However, the effective, grounded performances do elevate the material that we feel we're actually watching people like us.

Grade: C +