There are entirely too many movies like People Like Us, films that prey on the emotionally fragile, on those people who are susceptible to tales of familial strife and tearful, angry people who love each other. And the thing is, People Like Us is a pretty good movie, even though it’s predictable, mawkish, and at times even trite. Yet it’s still emotionally affecting, charming as hell, and occasionally quite funny, thanks to a strong cast and writing that’s just deft enough to put a new spin on a tired old tale.
The film centers on Sam (Chris Pine), a wannabe slick New Yorker who makes a living selling nothing to people who need something. He’s a little jaded, a little disaffected, but with just enough charm and charisma to land a sweet, patient girlfriend like Hannah (Olivia Wilde). They’re slowly meandering towards permanency when Sam discovers that his father, a once-famous record producer who Sam harbors a bitter resentment towards, has died back home in Los Angeles. He begrudgingly makes the journey home, only to discover that he has not inherited anything beyond a roomful of vinyl and a mournful, inconsolable mother (Michelle Pfeiffer). Making matters worse, his father’s lawyer tasks him with his dad’s last wish — to deliver $150,000 to an unknown young boy. As you’ve probably already gleaned, there’s a familial connection between Sam and the boy, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) — namely that his mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) is Sam’s half-sister, born out of a decades old affair his father had.
From there on, the film is startling only in its predictability. Everyone is keeping secrets, everyone clashes with each other because they’ve an inability to trust, everyone has baggage and skeletons and scars of sins past and present. And slowly the film builds up to its inevitably greatest clash, Sam’s final reveal to Frankie and Josh after he inadvertantly becomes a part of their lives. They both resent their long-lost father for seemingly different reasons, yet somewhere in the bitter morass of their emotions and loves and hates and resentments, as you could probably expect, something wondrous blossoms.
I know, I know, OK? I know. It’s painfully obvious, and it’s exactly as calculable and telegraphed as you think it is. But the thing about People Like Us is this: it’s all done surprisingly well. It’s not original, but it’s well-written in the sense that the characters are lively and interesting, and their interactions feel real. Their tensions are palpable, their emotional wounds ragged and bare, their conflicts righteously bitter and their resolutions warmly satisfying. There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity with People Like Us, like a line of products that never makes any great advances, but is cozily recognizable and with just enough new twist to make it intriguing. Call it dramatic brand loyalty, if you will.
It’s in no small part due to the writing and direction of Alex Kurtzman, in his unlikely directorial debut. I say unlikely because not only is Kurtzman best known as a writer, but he (along with frequent co-collaborator Robert Orci) wrote everything from episodes of “Xena” to J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot to the unfortunate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Yet he handles his duties well, keeping the camera nice and tight on the characters in the right moments, panning out and giving them space when necessary, and using Los Angeles and its surroundings as an occasionally dazzling canvas for his characters to play on. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but there’s a pleasant lack of bombast and saccharine tackiness that often pervades dramatic fare such as this.
But what really makes the film are an eclectic but talented group of actors. Chris Pine acquits himself well, infusing Sam with enough brashness and arrogance to make him interesting, but not so much that he becomes unlikable. Michelle Pfeiffer is still utterly gorgeous and plays the wan, listlessly saddened Lillian with a sort of resigned gravitas. Olivia Wilde isn’t given much to do, but what she does, she does well. But most remarkable are the pair of Elizabeth Banks and Michael Hall D’Addario, as a brassy, jaded, down-on-her-luck single mother who treats her son with a mixture of affection and frustrated confusion. The kid’s a troublemaker who starts the film off by literally blowing up his school swimming pool, and D’Daddario is the rare child actor who plays the wiser-than-his-years type well, with just enough vulnerability and fragility to make you want to punch through the rough veneer and take him home with you. Their dynamic is a complex one, and while it rushes from contentious and argumentative to sweet and affectionate a little too quickly, both players are adept enough to make both ends of their emotional spectrum affecting.
So in the end, what do we have? We’ve got a fairly derivative, uninspired story that you’ve read or seen before that’s brightened up by some good performances and sharp dialogue. It’s an emotionally resonant study in family dynamics, between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, and everything in between. And I’ll freely admit that I’m at a time in my life when precocious young boys and complicated father/son relationships are more affecting than ever before, and thus I was struck by People Like Us perhaps more than I should have been. But it doesn’t change the solid performances and the film’s snappy, crisply paced feel. It’s all so familiarly charming, but that charm is, right here and right now, enough to make it worth a shot.