With Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Hall D’Addario, Philip Baker Hall. Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & Jody Lambert. Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Rated PG-13 (for language, some drug use and brief sexuality). 115 minutes.
Don’t they make filmmakers watch old movies anymore? Moviegoers have been bemoaning the lack of good romantic comedies – once a Hollywood staple – for years. Now we can add the domestic melodrama to the list of genres that they’ve forgotten how to do. Once tearjerkers like “Now, Voyager” and “Magnificent Obsession” were turned out with ease. It didn’t matter how absurd the details of the plot were because the human emotions were real. Now they can barely do that.
PEOPLE LIKE US has what might have been an interesting premise: Sam (Chris Pine) shows up late to the funeral of his estranged father and is given a shaving kit containing $150,000 in cash with instructions to deliver it to his sister. The only problem is Sam is an only child. He discovers that his father had a second family, and that his half-sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) is a single mom trying to raise a smart-but-difficult son. When we first meet Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) he is attempting to blow up the school’s swimming pool by dumping sodium into the water.
So what does Sam do? First he befriends Josh, having to assure everyone he’s not a pedophile for stalking this boy to whom he is a stranger. Then he starts following Frankie around – to an AA meeting, to her place of employment as a bartender (!) – and eventually she comes to like him and like the easy way he has with the boy. Just from this description you should see what the problem is, but the screenwriters (all three of them) set up the situation so that Sam keeps his identity a secret from Frankie. The longer he waits the more she’s going to hate him when she finally finds out, but apparently Sam never goes to the movies or watches TV so he remains utterly oblivious as he plays out this clichéd plot device.
Instead of telling her upfront and making that the issue they have to face, there are a variety of plot distractions which go nowhere, from Sam’s odd relationship with his mother (a largely wasted Michele Pfeiffer) to a Federal Trade Commission investigation into a deal gone bad that is taking place on the East Coast while Sam is bumbling through California. Jon Favreau appears briefly as Sam’s employer and ends up with star billing on the film’s poster for claiming a paycheck.
The film’s real leads lack the star power to sell this material and make us care in spite of the story. Pine is saddled with a character who is stupid and short-sighted for most of the film, and his boyish good looks aren’t enough to overcome the fact that his character is a creep. Banks fares marginally better, getting to play off of the fact that Frankie has been fighting a bad deal her whole life.
“People Like Us” leads to a big reveal at the end which might have worked under other circumstances. However, the job of the reviewer is to assess the film as it is, not as he or she wished it was, and so the payoff comes across as slightly clever plotting rather than as an emotional and poignant payoff. People wondering why there are so many superhero movies out there this summer (with new Spider-Man and Batman movies on the way) might consider that it’s one of the few genres Hollywood usually gets right.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.