People Like Us

It’s strange enough to have a movie with (gasp) a compelling story, believable dialogue, and honest, true-to-life characters at the end of June… but to have it come from one of the more well-established writers of summer schlock? That’s downright odd.

Fortunately, it’s also very refreshing.

Alex Kurtzman co-penned the first two Transformer movies and Cowboys & Aliens, but his latest, People Like Us, will make you forget them instantly. Yes, it helped that he was drawing on his own life, but convincing performances from Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, and Michelle Pfeiffer push it over the top. You may just check the calendar on your way out of the theater; surely it can’t be November already.

Pine stars as Sam Harper, a smooth-talking businessman who has a super-big deal go south just as he learns that his estranged father has died. When he arrives home for the funeral (late, on purpose), he finds that his big-shot, music producer-dad left him a satchel with $150,000 and a note asking that it be delivered to a person Sam doesn’t even know.

He finds out that the person is Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), the nephew he never knew he had, from Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), the half-sister he never knew he had.

Unable to bring himself to tell Frankie the truth (In what feels like a cinematic first, that’s an understandable decision.) Sam instead begins a (platonic, people!) relationship with her to learn more about her and make sure she and Josh are taken care of.

Also in the equation is Sam’s mom Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s dealing with her own issues, and his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), who’s seeing Sam grow more distant, the more he finds out about his sister.

Kurtzman, who similarly met his own half-brother and half-sister eight years ago, brings a surprising level of tenderness and honesty to the screenplay, which he co-wrote with longtime writing partner Roberto Orci and also Jody Lambert; it’s grounded, it’s heartfelt, and it’s true. There are, of course, some cloying moments along the way, but they’re so few and far between that they can easily be forgiven.

If the screenplay is good, the acting is even better. Pine, who hasn’t exactly challenged himself so far in his career, anchors People Like Us with tenderness and (mercifully) restraint. It could have been a very shallow performance, full of emoting and melodrama, but Pine wisely dug deeper to give Sam a real, complex personality.

Pfeiffer, frankly, hasn’t been this good since, what, The Fabulous Baker Boys? And her stripped-down, gritty performance may actually be good enough for earn a few looks come Oscar time.

It’s Banks, though, who pushes People Like Us over the top. Look no further than her reaction in “That Scene”– when she finally finds out the truth about Sam. If you don’t get the chills, check your pulse. Overall, it’s a masterful performance.

Male strippers and talking teddy bears will rule the box office this weekend, leaving People Like Us to go largely unnoticed. Bummer, since it’s one of the best of the year so far.

4.5/5 stars