There’s a point, and the new DreamWorks drama People Like Us definitely crosses it, when the conventional heart-tugging feel-good Hollywood drama becomes distinctly creepy. Superficially, the film, by veteran screenwriter-producer Alex Kurtzman, is in the Cameron Crowe or James Brooks style, a tale of a selfish jerk who learns to care for others, but along the way things get unintentionally very weird.
The opening scenes establish Sam (Star Trek’s Chris Pine) as a speed-talking barter trader, who gets himself in deep trouble in a scam in which soup boxes explode in an unrefrigerated box car. His boss (Jon Favreau) is on the verge of firing him, the Federal Trade Commission is on the verge of investigating him, and then Sam gets news that his father, a famous Los Angeles record producer from whom he has been long estranged, is dead.
After deliberately missing the plane to Los Angeles that would get him there in time for the funeral, Sam finally heads out to the coast with his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) in tow. His mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) slaps his face before welcoming him back home after 13 years. People Like Us is that sort of on-the-nose drama, where every emotional reaction is telegraphed and delivered right on cue.
Soon, Sam is invited to lunch by his father’s lawyer (Philip Baker Hall), who gives him a toiletry kit with $150,000 in cash. The money’s not for Sam but for a bartender, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and her 11-year-old son. Instead of calling her up, Sam decides to find out who the woman is, while mulling over whether to keep the money for himself.
He follows her to an AA meeting where he learns that Frankie is his father’s daughter, after she conveniently reads out her father’s obit from the newspaper. When Hannah conveniently heads back to New York, Sam begins his sister-stalking campaign in earnest. After they meet, he strikes up a rapport, and begins working on Frankie’s soft spot, her bright but troubled son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario, in the standard precocious-brat mode). Sam encourages Josh’s musical interests by providing him with lists of early 1980s British rock bands.
But back to the sister. Everything depends on Sam withholding information from his sister, and yet sticking around to get to know her. Though Sam assures her he would never hit on her, Pine’s flirty gazes say otherwise. They fold laundry together and laugh over dinner at a late-night taco stand. All of this feels disturbingly like an incestuous rom-com. And that’s not the end of it. Back at the house he smokes his father’s medical marijuana with his attractive mom, leading to new kinds of inappropriateness. He’s wearing his father’s patchouli, which she tells him used to really turn her on.
The usual defence for these kinds of Hollywood soap operas is that the quality of the performances overcomes the contrivance of the script. Except in this case, all the emoting in the world can’t pull this one out. Pine, with his pale blue gaze and artful perma-stubble, communicates only one note at a time. Banks does better at creating a scrappy single mom, though her litany of hard-luck stories seems unlikely. Pfeiffer gets a confessional scene that has that tempest-on-command quality that big stars are granted when they’re in small parts. This is the sort of movie that ends up awash in sincere revelations, and not a moment of it feels remotely believable.