A death discloses a father's secret life, and a secret sibling

Chris Pine as the stunned son, Elizabeth Banks as his newly discovered half-sister, and Michael Hall D'Addario as her son.
Chris Pine as the stunned son, Elizabeth Banks as his newly discovered half-sister, and Michael Hall D'Addario as her son.
Posted: June 29, 2012

People Like Us is one of those "inspired by true events" stories - a tagline so commonplace these days that its absence from the beginning of Ted comes as kind of a shock.

The true events at the heart of Alex Kurtzman's alternately absorbing and maddening Los Angeles melodrama have to do with the director's discovery a few years back that he had a secret sibling. His father was in another marriage, another life, and hadn't let on.

In Kurtzman's terribly titled feature debut, it is Sam Harper (Chris Pine), a wheeling, dealing, cellphone-slinging "facilitator" (read scam artist) who gets to fly from New York, where he lives with his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), to L.A. for the funeral of his dad. A record producer of legendary stature, with the man-cave of gold records and music biz mementos to prove it (he encouraged Columbia to sign Elvis Costello, we're told), Jerry Harper has bowed out, leaving a bitter widow - Michelle Pfeiffer - in his wake. And at the wake.

Sam doesn't want to be there, but he is - Hannah makes him get on the red-eye. And then he meets with his father's lawyer, and gets the shock of his life: the name and address of a woman, and $150,000 to give to her.

"He left it in a shaving kit for his alcoholic love child," the stunned Sam later tells Hannah. Stunned, and facing a thorny ethical dilemma: Does he carry out his father's wishes, or take the money himself - which he sorely needs?

Of course, he has to see who this woman is first, which requires stalking, and subterfuge. Her name is Frankie, she is played by Elizabeth Banks - the actress hell bent on getting those rom-coms behind her. Frankie is a single mom with a troubled middle schooler (Michael Hall D'Addario) and, yes, a drinking problem. Ironically, she makes her living as a bartender at a swank downtown hotel.

"Temptation is the mother of all tips," she deadpans.

The writing in People Like Us - at least the first two-thirds - is sharp, and smart. Pine is convincingly edgy, full of rattled turmoil. Banks' Frankie hides her hurt well, dressed in her "upscale skank" work outfits, and worrying about her latch-key son. As for the kid, the casting agent found a natural in D'Addario, and Pine's Sam works his way into the mother and son's lives by befriending the boy first. On a trip to a record store, Sam picks out the must-have albums for him: Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, the Clash. (Hey, Sam should get together with Keira Knightley's wandering waif in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World - clutching her essential vinyl as the apocalypse approaches.)

Pfeiffer, playing the grieving widow with her own secrets, does a lot with her few scenes - she's a presence, holed up in her Laurel Canyon home, painting and drawing, cynical, perceptive. It's a pleasure watching her in something good.

But then, alas, People Like Us takes a turn toward hopeless soap: soul-baring confessions, an endless getting-to-know-you montage (to Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue"), a truly excruciating cornball ending. These people really aren't like us, after all. They're the figments of some Hollywood screenwriters' imaginations, turning to mush before our eyes.


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

 

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