Obnoxious, absurd, and sentimentalized to the point that could even Hallmark greeting card writers vomit, People Like Us wastes of the talent of the people who made it and the time of the people unfortunate enough to watch it. Right off the bat, the title couldn’t be more of a misnomer. I can assure you that no one who waltzes across the screen in this drivel is even remotely like you. Why? Well, because you have genuine feelings and emotions beyond those forced on you by a lazy writer who has read one too many books on story structure and is convinced that screenwriting is a puzzle that can somehow be solved by putting certain elements in a specific order as opposed relying on things like creativity, personality, or insight. It’s a pretty rough movie, drab and inconsequential with only hints of the complicated emotions that make a good drama.
Chris “Captain Kirk 2.0” Pine stars as a slick suited business type whose job appears to be fast-talking his way into bad deals for pretty well anything. We see him land a big career making deal in a quick cut opening sequence before instantly being put in his place by his boss (an inexplicably cast Jon Favreau) who tells him that the company being sued for fraud and Pine is in the middle of it. Then to complete the “shittiest day ever” arc, where the flawed protagonist must experience crisis before redemption, Pine learns that his father died. Over a weekend when he should be cleaning up the mess at his work, he has to fly back to California for the funeral. It turns out that Pine’s father was an absent, work obsessed music producer who he ran away from years ago along with his former groupie mother played by the always welcome Michelle Pfeiffer (whose performance is the lone bright spot in the movie, even though she’s rarely featured).
Pine is then told to visit his father’s lawyer for a meeting about the family estate, which he gladly runs to hoping to inherit a little cash to pay off his upcoming debts. However, instead he’s given a shaving kit full of $150,000 in cash to give to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). He initially assumes that it’s some sort of mistress. Instead it’s a secret half sister Pine never knew he had, who is now an AA regular and bartender supporting a young punk kid (Michael Hall D’Addario). Now, the logical thing to do would be to confront the woman about their secret family relations and maybe even discuss splitting the money he needs so badly, but if that happened there would be no movie.
Instead, Pine gradually and secretly works his way into the mother and son’s life, warming up to them and finding a warm mushy center in himself through a series of good times montages (ugh). Oh and Chris Pine also has a girlfriend, she’s not really worth mentioning though as she has no personality beyond constant irrational support for her asshole boyfriend (he is pretty though, I guess that’s all that matters). Mark Duplass also has three scenes as a lonely security guard with an unrequited crush on Frankie, though why he’s actually in the movie will remain a mystery until deleted scenes pop up on a DVD some day.
It’s all pretty tough stuff to sit through, alternating between quirky comedy without the laughs and grating weepy sequences that will cause audiences back pain because director Alex Kurtzman is pulling so hard on their heartstrings. It’s Kurtzman’s first film as director, so he probably should be forgiven for such sloppy stabs at manipulation, but the odd thing is that his background is exclusively in whizbang genre fair like the Star Trek reboot and Transformers. Those aren’t great screenplays, but given the restless desire to entertain they represent, it’s a little odd that Kurtzman’s passion project would be so painfully dull. I guess he’s a children’s entertainer who secretly dreamed of boring adults all along.
The film is also the latest monument to the sad limitations of Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks’ respective careers. Both are perfectly fine actors, but too beautiful to get a chance to show it. Pine can help but look like an action hero, while Banks has comedy chops and dramatic weight, but her model looks keep relegating her to supporting roles as stuffy girlfriends. The only dramas either actor will get without skyrocketing to A-list status are projects like People Like Us that have been passed on by all of the bigger stars before falling into their laps. Hopefully when they get older and pudgier, they’ll get some interesting characters to play, let’s call it the Alec Baldwin phenomenon.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about People Like Us is that there are moments and ideas that could have been expanded into the compelling drama everyone involved seems to think it is. When Pine courts the family as if he’s a potential new father figure he is welcomed in as such with very creepy incestuous undertones, while Michelle Pfeiffer’s heartbroken widow has the secret shame of being responsible for breaking up the family years ago. Unfortunately, these ideas (and many others) are barely explored in favor of a slavish devotion to the cookie cutter “jerky business dude makes good” narrative formula.
It’s a shame that even character driven dramas have to be so formulaic in Hollywood these days. The approach makes sense in blockbusters that are being sold as multimedia products, but shouldn’t character dramas have at least an ounce of personal expression within them to be of any interest? That frustration is practically referenced in the movie with a final moment ripped off almost wholesale from The King of Marvin Gardens, only without the pathos, painful truth, and carefully constructed emotional investment fostered in Bob Rafelson’s underrated classic. The daring personal expression of the 70s Hollywood was long ago replaced by the big budget movie-of-the-week mentality that now tries to shove swill like People Like Us down our throats and call it “serious” filmmaking. No wonder so many adults who should know better were happy to help Iron Man or The Dark Knight break the box office. Sometimes it feels like superheroes are the only movie characters allowed to have souls anymore…sigh…