Review: ‘People Like Us’ Overcomes a Clumsy Narrative With Strong Performances and Plucky Charm

By  · Published on June 27th, 2012

You know how clumsy puppies can’t help but be adorable, even when they do awful things? Basset Hound pups are a prime example. Their feet are too big, they trip over their own floppy ears, and even if they eat the legs off your sofa, it’s whatever. All a Basset puppy has to do is look at you and you’re halfway over it. Writer/director Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us is almost like that – forgivably clumsy when it’s falling all over itself and wrecking things, but cute in spite of itself.

…except for that whole almost-incest thing. Holy crap, that thing.

People Like Us is the story of Sam (Chris Pine), a fast-talking dealer of anything with no use and a past-due expiration date. He’s the Jerry Maguire of selling people bullshit – and entirely unpleasant when we meet him. When one of Sam’s underhanded business deeds comes back to bite him, his boss, played by a skeez-tastic Jon Favreau, gives it to Sam straight – make up for the lost cash, or an unhappy client is reporting them both to the FTC.

Sam additionally learns that his estranged music producer father has died in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer. Sam does everything in his power to miss the cross-country flight from New York for the funeral, but his all-too-sweet girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) ensures their arrival and off they go to what is clearly a home heavy with unpleasant memories and raw wounds. Sam’s mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) has also felt the abrasive rub of her son six thousand miles away. She and Sam have a clear emotional buffer – Sam’s disdain for his father even in death chief amongst the sore spots. Sam’s father was mostly an absentee rock star type that let his family fall by the wayside, his son in particular, and you can see how this planted the seed that turned Sam into an emotionally damaged über-douche. Rubbing salt in the wound, Sam is left nothing but a record collection in his father’s will, and a shaving kit containing one hundred and fifty thousand dollars – to be delivered to a half-sister he never knew.

This is where the story both improves vastly, and begins to make not even the remotest of sense.

Sam tracks down his new-found sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), an alcoholic, single working mother, at an AA meeting. Frankie too has learned of her father’s passing, though rather than suffering the brunt of his careless presence like Sam did, she drinks away the pain of his abandonment in her youth. While Pine still manages to throw out low levels of jerk here and there, he quickly morphs into an exceptionally decent man with a deep interest in Frankie. The transition is all too easy, but Pine’s Sam is so instantly likeable at this point that I found myself simply going with it in spite of the illogically speedy shift.

What derails this, constantly and almost unforgivably far into the film’s run time, is Sam’s absolute inability to tell Frankie that he is her half-brother, in spite of increasingly flirty banter and closeness between the two. Sam cares about Frankie and her bored, troublemaker son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario); he becomes an active and affecting presence in their lives – and he absolutely refuses not to stand in front of the oncoming train that is Frankie’s clearly growing attraction to him.

Sam’s reasons are narratively unsound; simple fear of exposing her to the truth and his initial cowardice doesn’t enter into the fact that they have dates. Like, real dates – at least from her perspective. They do laundry together, and take road trips. They often stare into one another’s eyes, and at no point is there any sense of, “Holy shit, I should probably clue Frankie in on this whole being related thing because she totally wants to kiss me right now,” coming from Sam. They’re experiencing this relationship on different levels, and when Sam finally drops the, “Hey, you’ve been attracted to your brother,” bomb on Frankie, her reaction is rightly extreme.

Still, in spite of the film’s many flaws – I really, really dug it. There is a warmth there, and the bare bones of the story are just enough to save People Like Us from drifting into disaster.

The reminder of the pending FTC investigation is jarring and does not mix well with the narrative. I understand that Sam is supposed to be increasingly hemmed in by his failures, but the looming and very real legal troubles he’s facing in New York just don’t function within the story.

There are strong emotional moments between Hannah and Sam that are clearly designed to mean something to the audience, but have minimal impact because Kurtzman and company send her home in the first fifteen minutes of film, and don’t invite her back until we’re already fully invested in two much more vital relationships. Sure, Olivia Wilde never chews up a scene with amazing acting, but her presence was pleasant and complimented Pine’s Sam.

Pfeiffer spends much of the film suffering from one-dimensional writing, but comes alive in the third act and claims Lillian. She and Sam’s late bonding feels natural, with lots of biting wit and delicate knocks on each other’s failings that establish who they really are to each other, and to the departed husband and father. Their movement toward reconciliation, even through major revelations, feels pitch perfect.

Banks is beautiful, per the usual – and while it never ruined her portrayal of Frankie for me, the natural, banter-y style we’ve come to know Banks for was often replaced by rote, telegraphed dialogue. That she delivered it well helped, but it consistently feels like she was just there, being lovely. For benefit of this film, I was mostly okay with that.

Chris Pine gamely tosses the vast majority of People Like Us on his back and runs with it. He pisses off, charms, confuses – and does so in a way that can allow audiences to comfortably push most of the goofy premise, including the saccharine sweet ending, out of mind – and simply enjoy the big dumb puppy.

The Upside: It’s adorable, the cast is entirely pleasant, and Chris Pine in particular shines in what could have otherwise been a film too flawed to get behind.

The Downside: Jesus Christ, man, tell her she’s your sister. TELL HER SHE’S YOUR SISTER BEFORE SHE KISSES YOU ON THE MOUTH!

On the Side: The awesome Mark Duplass plays Frankie’s neighbor, Ted. He’s barely present in the film, but there were clearly a noteworthy amount of Duplass-centric scenes that sadly ended up getting cut. Here is hoping we’ll see what we missed once People Like Us hits Blu-Ray/DVD.

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