Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are known mainly for writing stuff like Alias, Star Trek, and the Transformers movies, so it should come as little surprise that People Like Us, their attempt at a serious human drama set in the real world (the duo wrote it, Kurtzman directed), plays so much like an action movie – complete with broad acting, frenzied camerawork, and obligatory, cathartic montages in which actors pose purposefully. But the film also contains one of the year’s better performances, so don’t worry if you find yourself occasionally tearing up despite all the stupidity on display.
It even starts off like an action flick. Sam Harper (Chris Pine), a successful remaindered-merchandise salesman, discovers that his attempt to transport a train full of nearly expired canned soup through the heat of the South has quite literally exploded in his company’s face. Now Sam owes tens of thousands of dollars, his boss is pissed, the government’s on his tail, and he’s. Got. One. Last. Chance. Before. He …
Actually, then his record-producer dad dies, and Sam and his fiancée Hannah (Olivia Wilde) reluctantly head back to Los Angeles to be with his mom (Michelle Pfeiffer). Sam discovers, much to his surprise, that Dad left $150,000 in cash to an unknown household and a boy named Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). He tracks the boy’s mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) to an AA meeting and realizes that she is his half-sister, the love-child of his father and a groupie (one not unlike Sam’s mother, actually) whom he abandoned many years ago. As he tries to learn more about Frankie and her son, Sam keeps his true identity hidden, and his quest begins to resemble something out of a thriller: The camera breathlessly follows his car racing down the street attempting to keep up with Frankie; he lurks around corners watching her like a stalker, making lots of “wow” faces. And it’s not just his scenes with Frankie, either. At one point, when Hannah finds out that she and Sam are in debt, the camera caroms around her as if we’re about to smash cut to a giant spaceship hovering over the Beverly Center or something. Seriously, you’d think the world was on fire.
To be fair, it sort of is. Kurtzman is clearly trying to find a style that does justice to the pulse-racing quality of the revelations on display. People Like Us wants to be an action movie about human emotions, so the stylization isn’t a mistake, even if it is a miscalculation. Pine is generally a fine actor, but what makes him good at genre is his ability to bring down the histrionics in a scene. Not unlike Harrison Ford in his prime, he has an above-it-all quality that lends ludicrous action scenarios credibility. Here he’s being asked to go in the wrong direction, to heighten his responses to what’s happening, and he looks lost. The best he can muster is to widen his eyes and mouth a little more.
The alleged human moments in the film feel canned, too. When they first meet, Sam corners Josh in a record store just as the boy is about to pilfer a CD and instead gives him money and a list of classic punk rock CDs to purchase: Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Clash, etc. (As usual, Hollywood’s idea of surrogate fatherhood consists mainly of sharing your awesome music choices with troubled kids.) There’s nothing particularly insightful or touching about the scene. It's the kind of just-add-water character note you might tolerate in a sci-fi extravaganza, less so in a movie that purports to be about real people doing real things.
Still, there is a “but.” And, as usual, it’s Banks, who’s turning great performances in lousy movies into some kind of brilliant career strategy. As the wounded, hassled, and feisty waitress–single mother at the heart of this drama, she has to be vulnerable, strident, confused, smitten, and skeptical, and she somehow manages to keep all these balls in the air at the same time, pushing things to extremes without losing some sense of an inner life. Kurtzman knows it, too. At times, he seems content to just turn the camera on this wonder and leave it there, simply letting us watch her react. It’s at these moments that People Like Us briefly comes to life. The actress brings the film an emotional legitimacy it otherwise hasn’t earned.