People Like Us is a great concept featuring an excellent cast that comes up short of being a great movie.
Sam (Chris Pine, Star Trek) is a fast-talking barter who goes from city to city buying surplus material from one company and trading/selling it to another. He’s so good at his job — or at least we’re given that impression during the opening montage — that when he makes a massive screw-up that could attract federal attention onto the company, his boss (Jon Favreau, Iron Man, in a far too brief cameo) doesn’t fire him outright and gives him three days to fix it.
That deadline comes at an unfortunate time as Sam’s estranged father dies following a prolonged bout with cancer. Sam isn’t one to address his problems as his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), helpfully points out for us and he reluctantly returns home to support his grieving mother, Lillian, (an excellent Michelle Pfeiffer) while halfheartedly trying to fix his work mishap. Pine is immensely likable and proves he can handle the simple, quieter films as easily as he does the summer blockbusters with surprising ease. He makes Sam relatable even when he’s making questionable decisions.
The biggest challenge comes when a family friend gives Sam a bag filled with $150,000 and a note from his father to take care of the people at an unfamiliar address. Faced with his own debt, Sam considers keeping the money, but his curiosity gets the better of him and he decides to find these mysterious beneficiaries of his father’s fortune who he soon learns are a sister, Frankie (a consistently solid Elizabeth Banks) and troubled nephew, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) he never knew existed.
It’s at this point screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (Cowboys & Aliens) loses his way with a film loosely based on his own life that he’d steered and adequately paced in his directorial debut.
Rather than coming right out and introducing himself as their relative, Sam begins awkwardly stalking following Frankie and Josh and interacting with them on enough random occasions that they begin to consider him less a weird stranger with an odd interest in them, but a friend and possibly more. For Josh, that’s the father he’s never known and for the single Frankie … you get the picture. Yes, it’s weird and yes, it almost goes there.
If only Kurtzman — who also co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Roberto Orci (Transformers) and Jody Lambert — hadn’t gotten so fascinated with the ‘will Sam tell her now or will he wait a little longer?’ aspect of the film, it could have delivered on its potential. The story has more to offer than the hackneyed romantic comedy cliché of withholding a secret than could ruin Sam and Frankie’s relationship. So much of the film’s two-hour run-time is wasted on the big reveal that better story prospects such as Sam’s work issues, Frankie’s quest for some stability in her life and Lillian adjusting to an extended family she never wanted are only briefly touched upon and ruins the film’s momentum. Pfeiffer especially is so good in her scenes you’ll wish she had more screen time.
Once the reveal is made the film finally feels like it’s not running in place and can move forward, which is all you need when all of the performers are operating at such a heartfelt level. They raise it from standard Lifetime material and are so easy to invest into you just want the film to end with everyone smiling and laughing around the dinner table.
The actual ending is much better and one that almost makes the roundabout journey it took to get there worthwhile. Had Kurtzman streamlined some of the pre-relation bombshell Sam and Frankie scenes, the movie would have been much tighter and effective and a far more engaging experience for audiences like you.
Rating: 6 out of 10
Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal/DreamWorks