You’d expect the co-writer of the Transformers movies, Mission: Impossible 3, and Star Trek to take up a sci-fi action thriller in that same vein for his directing debut. You’d be wrong. People Like Us is a domestic drama with nary a robot or spaceship in sight. Even more surprising, it turns out that there’s a real writer inside the guy who wrote the Transformers movies. Not the best writer, but still, who would’ve guessed?
The newbie director in question is Alex Kurtzman, working with his habitual writing partner Roberto Orci. The story is based on an incident from Kurtzman’s own life. Chris Pine plays Sam, a gregarious Los Angeleno who has responded to growing up under an emotionally distant bastard of a father by becoming a different sort of bastard, a fast-talking salesman of wholesale overstock goods. When his father dies, he leaves Sam instructions to deliver more than $100,000 cash to a name and address. This is how Sam discovers the existence of his father’s illegitimate daughter Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a recovering alcoholic and single mom who sorely needs the money. Suddenly possessed of a half-sister and nephew, Sam finds himself acting in less self-absorbed ways.
Though this is new dramatic territory for Kurtzman, his action-movie past shows up in his visual style. He can’t resist drooling over the shiny-as-new 1970s Cadillac convertible that Sam inherits or including an explosion early in the film when Frankie’s troublemaking son (Michael Hall D’Addario) throws a sodium rock into his school’s swimming pool. These aren’t serious detriments to the movie; the same can’t be said for a zero of a subplot involving Sam’s girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) or the insistent but insignificant hints that Sam’s business might be shady. Kurtzman does well at evoking the web of lies in Sam’s family, but he still largely wastes Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam’s resentful mother. The director can’t keep the proceedings from sliding into sentimental excess at the end, either.
What keeps the movie from going there earlier are the lead actors, who invest everything they have in this material. Every once in a while, Elizabeth Banks gives a performance that just makes you say, “Whoa,” and this is one. Her early monologue when Frankie goes to her AA meeting immediately after learning of her father’s death is wild and compelling. You can tell that this woman is clinging to a single, fine, spider-silk thread well before she ends with, “I just want to have five dirty martinis right now.” For his part, Pine turns in a calculated yet effortless performance, timing each hesitation and pause to play a guy who habitually checks out of conversations when they threaten to turn unpleasant. The movie’s suspense hangs on Sam not telling Frankie about their relationship (which gets sticky when Frankie starts falling for a guy who appears only as a kind stranger), and while this is bald plot contrivance, Pine’s dithery performance makes it more credible than it should be. Their scenes together are expertly played; you can feel the solace that these two messed-up people take in having had their lives messed up by the same person. That’s often what it means to be siblings, and the movie’s biggest accomplishment is the way it grasps this.
People Like Us
Starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jody Lambert. Rated PG-13.