Genuine emotions barely win out over soapy complications in “People Like Us,” the story of two siblings’ responses to their father’s death. That the brother and sister in question are total strangers reps the narrative hook of this well-intended but faintly exasperating melo-dramedy, which insists on deferring the moment of truth for nearly two hours when it would take five level-headed minutes to clear everything up. Longtime writer-producer and first-time helmer Alex Kurtzman elicits effective performances from a fine cast, offsetting the story’s routine development to some degree. Modest B.O. awaits.
The first five minutes add up to a deftly etched character study, as whip-smart salesman Sam (Chris Pine) is brought low by the news that his father has died suddenly. Still resentful of his emotionally distant old man, Sam reluctantly heads home to Los Angeles for the funeral, accompanied by his supportive g.f., Hannah (Olivia Wilde). He’s received with a cold, hard slap from his estranged mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose frustration with Sam is helpfully explained by Hannah: “You’re good at running away.”
But Sam decides to extend his L.A. visit upon learning his father has left him $150,000 in cash and a set of instructions for its delivery. Turns out Dad sired a daughter out of wedlock a few decades earlier, which means Sam has a half-sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). In moderately stalkerish fashion, he tracks her down and strikes up a casual acquaintance, but refrains from telling her the truth about himself or the money, the better for him to bond with her and her adolescent son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), who’s going through a problem-child phase.
From here, things could have taken an icky if interesting turn, though Sam shuts that door early on by cryptically reassuring Frankie: “I swear on my life, I will never hit on you — ever.” As its title suggests, the pic seeks to establish common ground between brother and sister: Frankie may be a single mom and recovering alcoholic, but the superficially better-off Sam has unenviable financial and legal woes to deal with. Frankie may feel bitter about being abandoned by their dad at an early age, but Sam knows that having him around wasn’t the same as having an actual relationship with him.
The story thus unfolds along traditionally therapeutic lines, exploring how the siblings were shaped by their respective rotten childhoods, and laying the foundation for more constructive life decisions in the future. Hanging over the relationship is Sam’s realization that he’s eventually going to have to come clean with Frankie, a prospect that should generate some suspense but instead feels conveniently delayed in order to maximize the dramatic fireworks. Sam may be the conflict-avoidant type, but after a while, he just seems like a waiter taking his time with the bill.
Very loosely inspired by Kurtzman’s own family history, the screenplay (co-written with Robert Orci and Jody Lambert) is equal parts authentic and artificial. Obvious care has been taken to individuate the characters with detailed quirks and backstories, particularly in the case of Lillian, whose gradual coming to terms with her marital woes provides the ever-underexposed Pfeiffer with one of her meatier recent roles (she was recently seen in “Dark Shadows”). Yet despite the effort to ground this contrived scenario in plausible everyday reality and recognizable behavior, the ensuing cycle of revelations and reconciliations follows as predictable a pattern as Frankie’s 12-step program.
If they never fully sell the situation, the actors nonetheless deliver strong, emotionally accessible work. Pine’s cocksure good looks make him ideal for the part of a golden boy who uses glibness as a defense mechanism, while Banks’ flinty, open-hearted turn gets one rooting for Frankie immediately; that she goes the entire film without falling off the wagon reps a nicely restrained touch. The leads’ slight physical resemblance, particularly around the eyes, is a plus.
Pfeiffer is excellent, her demeanor tightening and thawing as the situation demands, and young D’Addario is appealing enough in a conventional good-kid-in-need-of-a-father-figure role.
A scribe-producer whose credits include such action fare as “Cowboys & Aliens” and TV’s “Fringe” and “Alias,” Kurtzman directs in an energetic, slightly disheveled style that enlivens the kitchen-sink proceedings, aided by Salvatore Totino’s agile lensing. Whatever its story problems, “People Like Us” offers a fine-grained portrait of L.A. living, showing an ease and familiarity with the city’s geography, paying subtle attention to such details as how the characters drive, and ensuring that Sam and Frankie have at least one important exchange at a taco stand.