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MOVIE REVIEW: Even great casting can't save 'People Like Us'

People Like Us

(PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

After five minutes of a completely different and perhaps better movie, "People Like Us" kicks in with its full-time plot that even by medium-grade family drama aspirations is remarkably thin. In the immediate wake of a dressing-down by his boss (Jon Favreau) over a big deal gone real bad, slippery barter salesman Sam (Chris Pine) is told by his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) that his dad has just died.

As we are soon to find out, director Alex Kurtzman and his two co-writers take 10 pages of script to tell us what should have been done with one and they do so frequently. Sam doesn't care for his late father and would rather open a vein than travel cross-country to attend the funeral.

A long-time TV writer and producer, Kurtzman is evidently under the impression he can wait forever for things to develop and play themselves out and wastes a lot of our time in the process. His two-hour movie feels more like three and should have been no longer than 90 minutes. This is not an auspicious first feature effort.

Luckily for Kurtzman, he's far better at casting than filmmaking and each of his five principal performers turn his lemons into not-real-great lemonade. It's a challenge for a performer to take a screenplay this wan and shaky and render it with such naturalness and sincerity. Each and every one of them earned their paychecks and then some.

The lone bit of gripping drama comes when Sam has a post-funeral meeting with Ike (Philip Baker Hall), his father's attorney and best friend. The father wants Sam to deliver $150,000 in cash to a half-sister Sam never knew he had. As with many entertainment folks in the '70s, the father was a serial philanderer and simultaneously headed two households.

Because Sam is dead-broke and could face heavy government-imposed fines because of his job related faux-pas, he's not real sure he wants to or should even carry out his father's dying wish. Instead of just bolting with the dough or biting the bullet and doing the right thing immediately, Sam languishes over the decision. He pounds down copious amounts of booze, alienates Hannah and his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) while basically stalking the sister (Elizabeth Banks as Frankie).

Sam's bizarre mental state regarding Frankie is at best disturbing and at worst highly freakish. To make matters worse, he simultaneously (without Frankie's knowledge) befriends her plucky but troubled preteen son Josh (Michael Hall A'Darrio) in the same lurking surreptitious manner which opens up a similar, even seedier can of worms.

Parents should note: it is the Josh character that drops the movie's sole f-bomb; maybe not something you'd want your own under-10 children to witness. However much Disney (the owner of Touchstone) would like you to believe in the breezy trailers, the film is not suitable for family consumption and will bore and/or bother children beyond their breaking point.

Although there are warm, revelatory passages and just enough morsels of comedy strewn throughout to keep it buoyant, the movie can't ever shake its underlying and undeniable creep factor. For the writers it's a no-win scenario. If Sam tells Frankie who he is and why he's there too soon, there will be no movie. If he waits too long, it all comes off as stagy, forced, weird and unnatural. They chose the latter.

The film would have worked out far better if Sam's initial locating of Frankie took longer and he had to face more hurdles before finding her. A red herring or two and more danger would have at least kept us guessing and maybe lent his character more sympathy. While not entirely predictable, the movie's final scenes go too far in the other direction trying to compensate for everything that has preceded it. It's uplifting but also incredibly rote and sappy. (Touchstone)