This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or follows my Twitter account, but my soul is a shadowy nether-region where only spiders, banshees and the least groovy of ghoulies would dare to make their home. The machinations of tearjerking cinema are for naught in a place like that. But every once in a while a film comes along so heartfelt, so genuine, so unbelievably touching that it elicits a single, desperate tear from my seldom used glands, signifying in its own subtle way that I am in the presence of a genuine masterpiece. People Like Us is not one of those films, but it’s pretty okay I guess.
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, famed (along with his co-writer Roberto Orci) for his contributions to the Transformers movies and TV’s “Fringe,” is a deeply personal one, because it’s based on his own life story. Chris Pine, who headlined Star Trek (another Kurtzman joint), plays a successful businessman in a less-than-respectable occupation whose estranged father dies. Distracted by work but obligated to at least show up at some point, Pine and his girlfriend Olivia Wilde return home to Los Angeles to fulfill his familial duties, and who knows? Maybe even collect some much-needed inheritance. So imagine his shock when Pine discovers that his dad put aside $150,000 for him with only a single caveat: he has to give it all to a sister he never even knew he had.
Pine delivers his performance with an undeniable Chris Pine-ness: kind of a jerk, fairly likable anyway, little hands. He’s got a role audiences are familiar with, and gradually segues from business- to family-oriented over the course of the film. Elizabeth Banks plays his sister, whose life didn’t go quite as well as Pine’s, although they’re both kind of a mess. She’s a single mother and a recovering alcoholic, he’s in the hot seat for screwing up a business deal and could very well wind up in jail by the end of the film. Pine confronts her and develops a relationship with his rebellious nephew, but he doesn’t so much tell her that they’re siblings as he does… well, not do that.
And while the film is attractively shot, well-soundtracked and the performances across the board are strong if a little unmemorable, the biggest drawback of People Like Us is the secrecy Pine indulges to get to know his sister better. They meet, joke, grow close, become a de facto family unit, and you spend most of the damned movie waiting for them to kiss. It’s not that the stars failed to sell the brother/sister chemistry, it’s that the chemistry has to be subdued because one party has no idea that’s where this relationship is going.
In any other film, the jerk with a heart of gold who encounters a single mom and ingratiates himself into their life, improving his own in the process, would end up falling in love with her. It’s the structure we’ve come to expect from this kind of dramatic material (see: As Good as it Gets, Jerry Maguire). Not caving in to this narrative pressure, even by design, is distracting. It’s like starting a movie with teenagers en route to a camping trip, running into a creepy guy who warns them not to go into the woods, and then never killing any of them. You’d be waiting for it the whole time, even if the actual movie was an excellent character drama, romantic comedy, or whatever else the filmmakers had in store, and boy howdy, would it be an odd experience.
Kurtzman works his way around the troubled conceit of his movie as best he can, and at times People Like Us is as moving as films of this ilk tend to get. But like I said, I’m a monster: a hateful, spiteful dude who rarely gets swept up in this kind of familial melodrama. People Like Us wasn’t made for me. If it was made for you, you'll probably like it, if you don’t spend the entire running time waiting for two siblings to make out. (Ew.)
Photo Credits: Zade Rosenthal