NEW YORK | “People Like Us” is that increasingly rare kind of film: an adult drama. The filmmakers seem so nervous about this prospect that they fill the movie with action-film editing and a camera that moves so restlessly through domestic life that you’d think it lost its keys.
At one point, I was sure the dramatic opening of a door was going to reveal a Klingon, not complicated memories of a deceased parent.
That’s not a coincidence: “People Like Us” is directed by Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the script with Roberto Orci (along with Jody Lambert). Kurtzman and Orci are the same duo that wrote the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, as well as the blockbusters “Mission: Impossible III” and “Transformers,” and the TV series “Alias” and “Fringe.”
If, in their knack for suspense, they imbue “People Like Us” with impatience, they also keep it entertaining, rendering a familiar, heart-rending melodrama as a gauzy and mostly pleasant diversion.
Sam (Chris Pine, who played Capt. Kirk in “Star Trek”) is a slick New York deal-maker, specializing in bartering excess goods between companies. But trouble (and a federal trade investigation) loom after he ruins a shipment of tomato soup by cheaply skimping on transportation. His emotional remove is clear when his girlfriend, Hannah (the striking but underused Olivia Wilde), informs him that his father has died, and he replies: “What’s for dinner?”
Hannah drags Sam to the Los Angeles funeral, where his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) greets him with both a hard slap to the face and directions to the linens. It’s a rare return home for Sam, who ignored his mother during his dad’s illness and harbors a long festering anger for his uninterested father, a 1960s record producer.
The lawyer executing the will (Philip Baker Hall) informs Sam that he’s inherited his father’s extensive vinyl collection, with the advice to, “Get your groove back.” He’s also given a shaving kit stuffed with $150,000 and instructions to give it to an unfamiliar name: Josh Davis.
The reveal is that Sam’s father had a secret, second family, of which is now left his daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and her sarcastic mop-head 11-year-old, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). She’s a recovering alcoholic working as a bartender and trying desperately to keep their lives together, a feat made harder by Josh’s troublemaking at school.
Sam first shadows Frankie and after a few encounters (he feigns a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member), he quickly becomes a close friend to Frankie and Josh. He’s reluctant to confess their shared father or bequeath the money, a suspense prolonged artificially.
“People Like Us” (a generically meaningless title) owes much of its charm to Banks. She enters the film like a powerhouse, striding in heels and a black mini-skirt to the principal’s office to pick up her son, while chastising a pair of ogling students: “I know your mothers,” she says. As a working single mom, she plays Frankie as heavy with the bitterness of being abandoned by her absent father.
There’s little reason Banks shouldn’t be a top star in Hollywood: She’s funny, sexy and sharp. The movies haven’t always lived up to her talent — TV’s “30 Rock” is still the best example of her capabilities.
Pine is a more standard protagonist, with a handsome if bland swagger. Still, he keeps the film grounded. The weakest hinge to the film is Pfeiffer, who has little motherly chemistry with Pine and whose character feels underwritten.
“People Like Us” is partly based on the life of Kurtzman, whose father was Dennis Lambert, a producer for the Commodores and others. The film, Kurtzman’s directorial debut, is too shiny and drenched in California glow to feel very personal. It grows increasingly sentimental, and by the end, lays it on especially thick.
It works best in its moments of humor amid the soapy plot: the discovery and awakening of a sibling relationship, forged as much over tacos as through blood.
“People Like Us,” a Touchstone Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality. Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.