Movie review: ‘People Like Us,’ a drama in action style

June 28, 2012, Thursday/ 16:58:00

“People Like Us” is that increasingly rare kind of film: an adult drama. The filmmakers seem so nervous about this prospect that they fill the movie with action-film editing and a camera that moves so restlessly through domestic life that you’d think it lost its keys.

At one point, I was sure the dramatic opening of a door was going to reveal a Klingon, not complicated memories of a deceased parent.

That’s not a coincidence: “People Like Us” is directed by Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the script with Roberto Orci (along with Jody Lambert). Kurtzman and Orci are the same duo that wrote the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, as well as the blockbusters “Mission: Impossible III” and “Transformers,” and the TV series “Alias” and “Fringe.”

If, in their knack for suspense, they imbue “People Like Us” with impatience, they also keep it entertaining, rendering a familiar, heart-rending melodrama as a gauzy and mostly pleasant diversion.

Sam (Chris Pine) is a slick New York deal-maker, specializing in bartering excess goods between companies. But trouble loom after he ruins a shipment of tomato soup by cheaply skimping on transportation. His emotional remove is clear when his girlfriend, Hannah (the striking but underused Olivia Wilde), informs him that his father has died, and he replies: “What’s for dinner?”

Hannah drags Sam to the Los Angeles funeral, where his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) greets him with both a hard slap to the face and directions to the linens. It’s a rare return home for Sam, who ignored his mother during his dad’s illness and harbors a long festering anger for his uninterested father, a 1960s record producer.

The lawyer executing the will informs Sam that he’s inherited his father’s extensive vinyl collection, with the advice to, “Get your groove back.” He’s also given a shaving kit stuffed with $150,000 and instructions to give it to an unfamiliar name: Josh Davis.

The reveal is that Sam’s father had a secret, second family, of which is now left his daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and her sarcastic mop-head 11-year-old, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). She’s a recovering alcoholic working as a bartender and trying desperately to keep their lives together, a feat made harder by Josh’s troublemaking at school.

Sam first shadows Frankie and after a few encounters, he quickly becomes a close friend to Frankie and Josh. He’s reluctant to confess their shared father or bequeath the money, a suspense prolonged artificially. “People Like Us” owes much of its charm to Banks. She enters the film like a powerhouse, striding in heels and a black mini-skirt to the principal’s office to pick up her son, while chastising a pair of ogling students: “I know your mothers,” she says. As a working single mom, she plays Frankie as heavy with the bitterness of being abandoned by her absent father.

“People Like Us,” a Touchstone Pictures release, runs 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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