Orci And Kurtzman Rebuff CGI... And Originality

A family drama from the writers of “Transformers” and “Cowboys & Aliens” is obviously a curious proposition. Fans of the Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s high profile summer releases aren’t likely to line up for “People Like Us,” and the film’s target audience might be driven away by the writers’ not so critically beloved resume. Kurtzman makes his directorial debut here, while he and his partner share writing credits with Jody Lambert. The film covers more emotional ground than its creators are used to, but the results are similarly lackluster.

The big moments, the major story beats (albeit, without CGI this time around) mostly fall flat because the build-up is hackneyed and overly familiar. “People Like Us” skates by on some likable performances, but its lack of inventiveness makes it a forgettable trip to the movies.

Chris Pine (Sam) stars as a shrewd but egocentric businessman whose father dies at the same time he’s encountering some serious debt. His strained relationship with his parents (Michelle Pfeiffer plays his mother, Lillian) makes the funeral difficult, and his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) feels betrayed by this bitter side of his personality. When he uncovers, via his father’s attorney, money earmarked for a sister and nephew he didn’t know he had, Sam faces a difficult decision concerning not only the aforementioned cash, but the divulgence of family secrets.

Elizabeth Banks co-stars as Frankie, Sam’s sister, and Michael Hall D’Addario plays her troublemaking son, Josh. Each of the main characters follows a predictable arc from varying degrees of imperfection to redemption, and the speed bumps along the way don’t offer anything in the way of unpredictability. The plot points that do stand out are inexplicable.

When Sam begins to spend most of his time with Frankie and her son, the writers make sure he explicitly states that he’s not interested in anything romantic. However, it is clear that Frankie has very little idea who this man is or why he’s taken an interest in her and her son. She doesn’t ask about the nature of their relationship until the screenplay absolutely requires it. Thusly, the second act suffers immensely, oscillating between awkwardness and insincerity.

All the while, Sam’s intentions are supposed to be murky, but nearly all his contact with his sister suggests an innate goodness. Similarly, the connection between Frankie and her son is opaque in that their interactions are always rocky, until they’re not. There’s lots of cause and effect, but we rarely see any real transformation. The resulting lack of depth is a challenge the film never overcomes.

To Pine’s credit, he makes an inherently uninteresting character as relatable as possible. Banks doesn’t fare nearly as well. She doesn’t have the acting ability or the charisma to carry dramatic moments that aren’t grounded by character growth, but few performers do. Pfeiffer’s arc is also light on dramatic context, but her brief screen time sheds some light on what makes Sam tick.

Visually, the film bears a surprising resemblance to Orci and Kurtzman’s oeuvre of blockbusters, in that the number of quick cuts is not in proportion to the relatively low-key screenplay and budget. Even a couple of action beats are thrown in for good measure. Also, the score is overbearing, almost distracting at times, leading most of the poignant moments the movie has to offer – as if Kurtzman doesn’t trust the audience to comprehend plot points that lack bombast.

As unimpressive as the script is, its sour notes are occasionally covered up by its sweetness. It can be syrupy to a fault, but the personality of Pine delivers some of the necessary punch to save the film from being a total bore. Unfortunately, Orci and Kurtzman paint only in shades of black and white. Leaving out the gray – forgetting about depth – is a mistake that “People Like Us” makes repeatedly, to its ultimate demise. The movie is an appeal to the most general audience possible, lacking the necessary spark to find the right audience.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriter: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jody Lambert
Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michael Hall D’Addario, Philip Baker Hall, Mark Duplass, Michelle Pfeiffer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language, some drug use and brief sexuality)