Based partly on the real lives of director Alex Kurtzman (who previously worked on “Star Trek,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and “Cowboys & Aliens”), who learned about a hidden half-sister, and co-writer Roberto Orci, who knew of a friend with a distant secret family, “People Like Us” focuses on the idea of trying to bond with someone you’ve never had the chance to know. Is family created by growing up together, or what relatives have both lost? If you didn’t live in the same house, can you have the same feelings about your parents? And at what point can you forgive your parents for the mistakes they’ve made?
Sam Harper (Chris Pine, of “Star Trek,” “Unstoppable,” and “This Means War”) is struggling with all those issues and questions. An overly slick, practically smarmy sales guy in New York City who earns his boss’s wrath after practically inviting the Federal Trade Commission into investigating their company, Sam is also trying to keep up with a fair amount of personal debt. By his side is dedicated, sympathetic girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde, of “Tron: Legacy,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and “The Change-Up”), who is so kind and nice that she agrees to make the cross-country trip with him back to Los Angeles when his father dies.
Once a famous record producer but ultimately a not-so-great dad, Sam’s father left him with a host of daddy issues—and in his will, nothing but a collection of old vinyl records and a shaving kit stuffed with $150,000. The money would certainly help Sam erase his debts, but per his father’s instructions, the money isn’t for him—it’s for the half-sister Sam never knew he had. Tasked with delivering the money, Sam weighs this newfound knowledge, and, more shamefully, whether he should really do the right thing. Could anything be worse than his own life?
Well, yes, of course there could be. And that life belongs to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks, of “Our Idiot Brother,” “Man on a Ledge,” “The Hunger Games,” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”), an incredibly stressed-out bartender dealing with a troublesome 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). When Sam meets her, all he wants to do is help her—with raising Josh, with becoming less overextended, with generally feeling happier—and while he goes in with good intentions, he also keeps the truth from her. Frankie, unsurprisingly, is flattered by and appreciates all this attention, but when she starts considering romantic feelings for Sam, you know “People Like Us” is going to get complicated.
The problem is that the film gets too convoluted for its own good, on a very simple premise that could have been solved in about 10 minutes: Just tell Frankie who you are already, Sam! But then there would be no movie, so we have romantic-comedy-like montages of Sam and Frankie spending time together, him grappling with the truth, Hannah growing increasingly frustrated, and Sam’s mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer, of “Dark Shadows”) contributing her own life lessons to the whole situation. “I’m the king of mistakes,” Sam says, but is that really enough of an explanation for his overly long delay in being honest? When “People Like Us” drags the revelation out, the movie starts to wear thin—and your patience will, too.
But the film belongs to Banks, who again reinvents herself this year after portraying a gritty cop in “Man on a Ledge,” being dolled up in wonderfully kooky costumes and cosmetics for “The Hunger Games,” and then suffering through motherhood in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” It helps that she and Pine look a bit similar in the face, and in the eyes especially—the better to sell their sibling storyline—but it’s really her commitment to playing this worn-down, life-beaten character carries the film. We love seeing people do good for themselves in family dramas like this, and Frankie’s storyline over the course of the narrative simultaneously feels the most real and the most heartwarming. Banks makes a lot out of a little, and Kurtzman and Orci do an effective job capturing how someone like Frankie, battered by the outside world, would still rise up in defense of herself and her son.
The rest of “People Like Us,” however, is like a Hallmark card with the most trite of all messages written inside. It gets too ultra-sweet toward a conclusion that could have happened 20 minutes earlier in the film, and teary monologues and clichéd emotional revelations bog it down. For a little while, “People Like Us” really feels that way—until it abruptly, disappointingly doesn’t.