Viewers who dislike movies in which all drama hinges on one character withholding information from another for no reason beyond the need to keep the plot chugging along should stay far away from People Like Us. The film does have its charms, but getting to them means seeing past a Buick-sized contrivance. The directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman—who forms, with People Like Us co-writer Roberto Orci, half the screenwriting team behind everything from the Transformers films to the Star Trek reboot to Fringe—the true-life-inspired film stars Chris Pine as a fast-talking wheeler-dealer first seen explaining to a potential client how barter is “the new money.” He’s good at what he does, but his confidence and unflappable attitude suggest a man in dire need of a Rain Man-like soul-shaking. He gets it in the form of a double whammy. In the course of a single day, he learns he has to perform an impossible make-good on a botched order to avoid a client turning him over to the FTC, and that his estranged father, a hard-living L.A. music producer, has died.
The first development troubles him more than the second, at least on the surface. At the insistence of girlfriend Olivia Wilde, Pine travels to California for the funeral, taking up residence in the patchouli- and vine-laden Laurel Canyon home of his distant mother (Michelle Pfeiffer, good as always) and burrowing into his own bitterness when he learns his father left him only a collection of classic LPs. Then he learns there’s another bequest: a wad of money and instructions to take it to the downscale apartment home of the recovering alcoholic half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) and shaggy-haired nephew (Michael Hall D’Addario) Pine never knew he had. In the patience-trying drama that follows, Pine befriends Banks and her son, first by striking up a conversation at an AA meeting, then by showing up and hanging out with her and the kid. For a while, he keeps his true identity a secret, as he theoretically considers keeping the cash for himself.
Not since The Lucky One—which, admittedly, wasn’t that long ago—has a movie tried to wring so much drama out of a character keeping his mouth shut, so it’s to Pine and Banks’ credit that they almost make it work. Both play their hyper-verbal characters as overcranked and overcaffeinated, people who have built up layers of defenses to deal with the many ways the world has beaten them up over the years. Though they were raised apart, the family resemblance is unmistakable, and the real drama of the film comes from each character’s reluctant moves to lower those defenses. Kurtzman overstylizes some scenes—a flaw he shares with many first-time directors given a decent budget—but has the good sense to get out of his cast’s way most of the time. They bring heart to material that otherwise moves to assembly-line rhythms as it pushes Pine’s character toward a redemption that’s too obviously his for the taking, the moment he decides not to keep his mouth shut.