These Are Not 'People Like Us'
In the frantic opening scenes of People Like Us, Sam (Chris Pine) strides through companies, spitting out bull in rapid fire as a New York salesman. He does it all while wearing that slick squinty-eyed smile of the guy who knows he's good at this game of getting points by pulling fast ones. As it turns out, after he closes his latest deal, his boss (Jon Faverou) tells him that the FTC is going to be coming after him because of a poorly thought-out transfer of tomato juice. When Sam gets home to his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), she informs him that all those calls he had been ignoring all day from his mother were to let him know that his father had passed.
The couple flies out for the funeral in California despite Sam’s best efforts to avoid it. When Sam and Hannah arrive at his childhood home, they greet his grieving mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) who implies that Sam’s arrival is too little too late. The following day, Sam meets with his father’s lawyer who presents him with an old shaving kit holding 150k to give to a nephew he never knew he had — born to a sister he never knew he had. Sam decides to stalk said sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and nephew Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), drink some liquor on the revelation, and smoke some of his late dad's medical marijuana on it. Out of fear and the impulse to keep the money to pay off his own debts, Sam chooses to continue to befriend Frankie and Josh anonymously.
Despite the 5 o'clock shadow on Pine’s face and the boyish Chuck Taylor's on his feet, he remains unsympathetic as Sam. His smarmy salesman smile from the opening sequence is hard to forget, and his learned disregard for transparency is hard for Sam to forget. He bums a cigarette off Frankie after crashing her AA meeting, teases her about her taco-eating habits, helps her fold clothes at a laundromat while eagerly listening to her dirty laundry, bonds with Josh, buys them groceries — essentially courting Frankie from day one. It becomes more and more off-putting as Sam continues to neglect to tell Frankie that she’s his half-sister, that they share the same father, and therefore half their DNA. It doesn't help that Pine and Banks have an easy chemistry. For the most part, the direction keeps them at arm's length, but Frankie is unmistakably falling for her brother. Their platonic dance ultimately ends with Frankie dropping her defenses to Sam to meet one of the last rebuffs you’d want to hear — you’re crushing on your brother.
People Like Us seems to be trying to show the truth, or rather the baseness of what it means to be human and warm our hearts to these "people like us" in the process. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We tell lies big and small to devastating ends. We cheat in business and with groupies we meet backstage at concerts. We steal CDs from record stores, and fathers from daughters. These crimes, of various degrees of seriousness, are all committed in People Like Us. The problem isn’t so much that they’re there, but that they’re presented in such a way as to assume that they can easily be swallowed. It’s assumed that the viewer will look at these flawed people and their flawed ways of coping with life and simply nod with a smirk of understanding.
The emotional wreckage in People Like Us would be more palpable and palatable in a movie that dared to be darker and to go deeper. Instead, writer/director Alex Kurstman delivers a glossy family drama and ties up the tumult with a pretty bow. Banks’ performance as Frankie is easily the best part of the movie, as she plays the wronged daughter with a subtlety deserving of a better project. That, and Pfeiffer’s commanding performance as the tired widow of a husband who loved his record collection more than her, give this movie the tenacity it otherwise lacks.