Sam Harper (Chris Pine) returns to his parents’ home in LA for the first time in many years when his father, a semi-famous music producer, dies after a long battle with cancer. Arriving late for the funeral, Sam is met with an icy welcome from his estranged mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), and an odd last request from his father, Jerry, imparted by the family lawyer: deliver $150,000 to one Josh Davis, and take care of him and his mother. Sam immediately seeks Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) out, only to discover that the boy’s mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), is Jerry’s daughter, Sam's half-sister, a sibling he’s never heard anything about, let alone met. Rather than simply explaining the situation, Sam decides to take the friendly stranger approach to introducing himself, and it’s not long before he’s deeply involved, and in a very deep lie, with his newfound family.
The pain and chaos Sam experiences after unearthing this immense family secret is illustrated with great effectiveness through editing and sound. Determined to contact every Davis in the phonebook in order to figure out which one was named by the will, Sam paces through Jerry’s studio with a bottle of liquor, getting drunker with each phone call. Later, deciding how to approach Frankie, he hyperventilates in a bathroom stall. In each of these sequences, fast-paced cutting between slightly different angles of Sam’s tortured face is unnerving, while amplified sound effects of doors slamming, record players scratching, and dial tones indicate an eerie otherworldliness. Here are two very personal outlooks for the audience, views into the protagonist’s mind as it descends into an altered state of inebriation or panic. Both interesting and creative, these moments are perhaps the best ones the film has to offer.
Kurtzman is better known for his writing than directing, having penned the screenplays for “Mission Impossible III,” “Transformers,” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” as well as a number of episodes of “Alias.” “People Like Us” is his first effort at feature direction, and after such extensive work on action blockbusters, it’s not hard to understand why Kurtzman uses the overly technical style, despite his straightforward and sentimental narrative. And to his credit, it is, at times, effective. Yet, the potential of this stylization is lost when accompanied an expected story about ill-defined, terribly mawkish characters.
The films from Antonioni, Coppola, and De Palma were groundbreaking both because they were able to build their stories and their characters via technical means as well as written words, and because the techniques used were radical in and of themselves. While “People Like Us” honors the visual and aural achievements of its predecessors well, it never manages to align its script with its images and sounds as successfully, leaving an audience with pleased eyes but discontented minds. The film is at turns sweet, smart, funny, and well acted; at others, it becomes excessively maudlin, the actors’ sentimental and nostalgic monologues covering for a narrative that has played out too quickly. Though certainly an incredibly well made film on a technical level, “People Like Us” falls short in its story and character development, and, by its conclusion, has failed to illustrate how these people are alike at all. That is, beyond the fact that they’re all really, really good-looking. [C]