Crisco-slick, director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman's
But first, the plot, cooked up by Kurtzman and writing partner Roberto Orci, along with their friend Jody Lambert. "People Like Us" is about a monumentally selfish and closed-off character, Sam, all mouth and emotional defenses. Sam's shady sales business, which the movie bends over backward to explain in the opening scenes, keeps him hustling one step ahead of the Federal Trade Commission.
Then life throws the curve, and Sam receives news that the father he barely knew, an LA music producer, has died. Sam and his girlfriend arrive in time for the tail end of the post-funeral gathering at Sam's old house, owned by his guarded and wary mother.
And then? Sam learns that his father fathered another child, a girl — Sam's half-sister, who is now grown and a recovering alcoholic with a dangerously rudderless 11-year-old son. Sam receives a satchel containing $150,000, earmarked for the relatives he never knew he had. Sam and half-sister Frankie meet. Sam begins shadowing his troubled nephew. And up until the 90-minute mark, "People Like Us" dances around in circles contriving reasons, mostly emotional, some practical, why Sam would keep the big news a big secret for an ill-advised amount of screen time. (When finally delivered by Sam, the beans-spilling moment got a hearty "THANK YOU!!" from one member of a Chicago preview audience.)
A fine and moving film could be made from this story, which was inspired, loosely, by events and situations in the lives of Kurtzman and Orci. But the script sets an awfully low bar for Sam's redemption: All he must do is not keep the money for himself, and to learn to say, "I love you," and to generally be less of a punk.
Many, I suspect, will find the film's climactic assault on the tear ducts effective. But in his debut feature outing as a director, Kurtzman — whose producing and/or writing credits with Orci include the frantic thriller
Banks and Pfeiffer fare the best by focusing on directness and simplicity. A particularly sharp scene between Pfeiffer and Pine, in which they smoke a joint and loosen up their defenses, high up in the Hollywood Hills, stands in stark relief to the rest of the film. Not even the egregious soundtrack, which never gives anybody or anything a moment's rest, can wreck it. Kurtzman has learned much about how to engineer a blockbuster, and how certain cuts, lighting, music cues, etc. can. With a story this size and shape, the engineering is entirely different, more instinctual, less tightly calibrated. Or should be.
'People Like Us' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, some drug use and brief sexuality)
Running time: 1:55