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'People Like Us'

An action writer's family drama feels like slick, wholesome detox, but the stars make it work

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People Like Us

(PG-13)

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

If Alex Kurtzman ever gets out of the Hollywood business, he might have to take up heli-skiing to stave off the adrenaline crash of the last decade or so. Since he and writing partner Roberto Orci broke through on J.J. Abrams' action show Alias, the Kurtzman and Orci team has become the go-to idea factory for action-adventure, from the Star Trek reboot to Transformers and Cowboys & Aliens.

In his directorial debut, Kurtzman attempts to dial it all down a bit with a fairly conventional dysfunctional-family tale awash in soft hues and teachable moments, but People Like Us is shot and edited with such a jittery energy and with so many beautiful people in beautiful cars wearing beautiful clothes that the proceedings occasionally feel like court-ordered sci-fi detox.

In a sense, that's the mind-set behind the off-putting actions of Sam (Chris Pine), a slick, successful salesman whose buzz gets harshed by the news of his record producer father's death. He evidently has daddy issues, because he purposely misses his flight to the funeral in Los Angeles, where his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) awaits. (Sam only gets there through the goading of his girlfriend, Hannah, played by the dangerously beautiful Olivia Wilde.)

When he learns his late father left him a shaving kit full of cash ($150K, to be exact) and instructions to deliver it safely – and in full – to his heretofore unknown to him half-sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), Sam pushes away Hannah, delays the building confrontation with Lillian and begins stalking Frankie and her troubled son, Josh, in vaguely creepy, yet miraculously character-specific ways. (Sam and Josh bond in a charming record-store scene.)

Because Sam, for reasons wholly unexplained, refuses to reveal his mission to Frankie, she understandably starts interpreting Sam's interest in her 12-stepping, single-mother life as romantic. Kurtzman and co-writers Orci and Jody Lambert expertly pull off the high-wire act in terms of squeamishness, yet Sam's choice to withhold his central information is poison to the film's momentum. By the time it all comes out, she wallops him almost as hard as the audience wants her to.

Still, People Like Us looks great and feels lived-in, especially by Pine and Banks, who are both so charismatic and innately intelligent that they can make almost any plot mechanism seem organic. It's also rare that a studio dramedy is so insistent on such a wide arc for its protagonist; Sam has a long road to haul if he wants respectability, and Pine makes him earn it.

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