Alex Kurtzman taps his family tree for enough sap to start a treacle factory in the sickening-sweet “People Like Us.” It’s the ideal complement to a first-time director freely indulging a penchant for waffling his way through a series of sticky situations involving a pair of long-lost siblings in desperate need of a hack screenwriter’s healing powers.
I would expect nothing more from the man who previously penned gems like “Eagle Eye,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and the tinny “Transformers” flicks. But what’s surprising is that he fails to even meet the remedial level of those enterprises in telling the trite tale of how Captain Kirk met Effie Trinket. Oops! Sorry, I meant Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, although the pairing of their alter egos would make for a story far more intriguing than the piffle Kurtzman foists upon us in “Us.”
How bad is it? Well, let’s just say that Nick Sparks, the “master” of the cheapie weepie, would be ashamed to attach his name to something as contrived and manipulative as a recently deceased father sending his estranged son on a mission to deliver $150,000 to the half-sister he never knew he had.
Albeit “inspired” by actual events in Kurtzman’s life, nothing about “People Like Us” rings true. It practically screams “me so phony,” as it clunks along a path littered with clichés and writerly flourishes Kurtzman believes to be clever and insightful. No, they’re just flat out dumb, just like his characters, all of whom are rooted in the basics of Screenwriting 101.
First off we have Pine’s Sam Harper, a spoiled prodigal son who freely lies, cheats and deceives. Why? Because Kurtzman makes him that way so he can “save” him in time for the end credits. Ditto for Banks’ Frankie, a recovering alcoholic with a slutty past and a delinquent 11-year-old son whose father could be any one of a dozen men she slept with. Yet this “hardscrabble” woman with no money and even less opportunity still somehow manages to look as gorgeous as Elizabeth Banks.
Joining her straight out of central casting are Michelle Pfeiffer, barely old enough to play Pine’s widowed mother, Lillian, a bitter dowager harboring a plethora of secrets; Olivia Wilde as Sam’s exasperated but faithful girlfriend, Hannah; and grating newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario as Frankie’s mop-topped moppet of a son deeply in need of a father figure and an acting coach.
The androgynous brat finds the former while shoplifting in an L.A. record store (yup, he’s the only 11-year-old who still steals his music from a store instead of the Net), where he’s in the process of being stalked by a talkative 32-year-old man with a gleaming smile. While his M.O. screams “Sandusky,” the helpful dude is really the kid’s uncle, except Sam doesn’t tell him that, adding immensely to the creepiness of the situation. It only gets worse when the boy trustingly hops into Sam’s shiny red Mercury Marquis convertible. At least junior has the wherewithal to warn the helpful stranger not to dare touch his “testicles.”
As if that wasn’t icky enough, Sam also unleashes his stalking skills on Frankie, whom he comes on to like a masher fully loaded with condescending pickup lines. One problem: Frankie is his sister. Well, OK, his half-sister, but it’s still discomforting to watch, especially when he clandestinely tails the unsuspecting babe to her AA meetings, and later, her job, working at, where else, a bar.
Never once, though, does Sam bother to mention that he and Frankie are related. Ah, family films! Aren’t they grand? They certainly aren’t with Kurtzman pulling the strings.
Abetted by his longtime writing partner, Roberto Orci, and their college chum, Jody Lambert, Kurtzman perpetrates one screenwriting crime after another in telling a long, drawn-out scenario that could easily be resolved by Sam simply telling the truth, just as his father’s will dictated.
But, no, that would be too easy, and we wouldn’t have the opportunity to watch a long-splintered family bond while buffing the stain from the name of Sam and Frankie’s philandering record-producer father. Well, not all the tarnish. The old man still must answer to God for inflicting Kajagoogoo upon the masses in the 1980s. To me, that’s a worse evil than waiting until death to part with the news that you’ve long had a secret love child stashed away on the poor side of town.
But Kurtzman, who only recently connected with a long-lost half-sister in real life, doesn’t see it that way. He’s more into human drama and rote metaphors, like using a spouting teapot to signal the release of the festering anger standing between his dysfunctional characters and a happy ending.
The problem is that “People Like Us” is utterly devoid of tension, its every word and emotion telegraphed so far ahead you find yourself reciting the next line before the words reach the actor’s lips. And Kurtzman’s refusal to scratch below the surface to explore the economic and emotional disparity between Frankie, who grew up fatherless and destitute, and Sam, who didn’t, is inexcusable. It might even have you lamenting, with “People like Us,” who needs enemies.
PEOPLE LIKE US (PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality.) Cast includes Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer. Co-written and directed by Alex Kurtzman. 1 star out of 4.