It's a remarkably common narrative framework for a romance, either comedy or drama: Handsome guy meets attractive gal. He wants to be closer to her, and when she makes some assumptions about him, he lies so he can conform to her expectations. Everything becomes increasingly complicated as he tries to continue the fib, until she finds out he hasn't been telling her the truth. She's furious with him, but he's become a better person for knowing her and wants to make things right.
Usually this sort of story will end with a big clinch between handsome guy and attractive gal, but while People Like Us follows a very similar pattern, this time around the handsome guy discovers that the attractive gal is his half sister. In this case, handsome guy is not looking for a romance, but you've probably seen enough movies that fall into place the way People Like Us does that you can't help but wonder if director Alex Kurtzman is taking this story into a really creepy but seemingly inevitable direction prior to the film's last act.
In People Like Us, Chris Pine plays Sam, a fast-talking and ethically dubious salesman for a company that barters overstocked goods. After mistakenly shipping a truckload of soup by rail through Mexico, causing it to spoil and explode in transit, Sam unwittingly calls attention to some unscrupulous behavior on the part of his employers, and soon he's in deep trouble with both his boss and the Federal Trade Commission. This bad day gets worse when Sam's girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) passes along some unfortunate news -- his dad has succumbed to cancer, and his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants him to come home to California for the funeral. Sam's reaction suggests he didn't have a cordial relationship with his old man, and his attempts to skip the funeral confirm his mixed feelings about both of his parents. While in California, Sam gets a call from his late father's attorney (Philip Baker Hall), who presents him with something his dad wanted him to have -- an old shaving kit filled with $150,000 in cash and instructions to give the money to a Frankie and Josh at a particular address. Since Sam could use some fast money, he considers keeping the cash himself, but a bit of amateur sleuthing (which looks more than a little like stalking) leads him to Frankie, short for Francine (Elizabeth Banks), a single mother trying to stay sober and look after her smart but troublesome 11-year-old son Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) while working long hours as a bartender. Sam starts thinking Frankie might need the money as much as he does, but when he follows her to an AA meeting and pretends to be a fellow alcoholic, he's hit with a bombshell as he realizes he and Frankie share the same father and that his dad had a second family he never knew about. Sam is eager to bond with his sibling and offer some much needed guidance to Josh, but he can't find a way to tell Frankie the truth, and she has a hard time understanding his sudden interest in her often chaotic life.
For a movie that's not supposed to be a romance, People Like Us is packed with clichés from any number of rom coms, from the meet cute (though they usually don't occur at a 12-step meeting) to the swapping of secrets over a big meal (in this case, tacos) to an idyllic afternoon drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (with the adorable child in tow) to the guy stepping in to help in a time of crisis, even though it interferes with his own life. For a brief moment, it even looks like Sam and Frankie might get horizontal, and while they don't, director Kurtzman seems willing to let the chemistry between Pine and Banks interact in a way that doesn't seem at all familial, which runs counter to his story of long-lost siblings trying to repair the damage of a fractured childhood.
As Sam, Pine is smart-assed and shallow in the early scenes, enough so that his evolution into a good guy doesn't quite ring true (he seems to enjoy being a jerk a lot more). Banks, however, fares better as a woman struggling to make the best of a life that hasn't been fair to her, and her comic timing is significantly better than Pine's as well. Michelle Pfeiffer, who for a change is asked to look older than her 54 years, is still beautiful and delivers a compelling performance as a new widow dealing with more than the usual emotional baggage, and while young Michael Hall D'Addario is stuck with the thankless role of the kid who talks like a jaded grown-up, he displays enough charm and comic skill that one hopes he'll get better material some day. Although the screenplay (written by Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert in collaboration with Kurtzman) takes a turn for the better as it comes to a close, most of the time People Like Us stubbornly fails to seem at all believable, despite the filmmakers' efforts to craft realistic characters. And it doesn't help that they've given Sam's father an inconsistent and implausible backstory as a record producer and music manager whose varied associations will ring false for anyone interested in popular music. People Like Us manages to be sporadically enjoyable despite its numerous failings, largely thanks to Banks and Pfeiffer, but if this was really based on a true story as the opening credits suggest, either they changed far too much in the name of dramatic license or these people exist in an alternate reality that doesn't work like the world where you and I live.