Surprise! A family reunion in 'People Like Us' ✭✭

Crisco-slick, director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman's"People Like Us"brings up the vague-sounding but crucial question of approach, and how a filmmaker's attack on a story lives or dies with a thousand separate choices.

But first, the plot, cooked up by Kurtzman and writing partner Roberto Orci, along with their friend Jody Lambert. "People Like Us" is about a monumentally selfish and closed-off character, Sam, all mouth and emotional defenses. Sam's shady sales business, which the movie bends over backward to explain in the opening scenes, keeps him hustling one step ahead of the Federal Trade Commission.

Then life throws the curve, and Sam receives news that the father he barely knew, an LA music producer, has died. Sam and his girlfriend arrive in time for the tail end of the post-funeral gathering at Sam's old house, owned by his guarded and wary mother.

And then? Sam learns that his father fathered another child, a girl — Sam's half-sister, who is now grown and a recovering alcoholic with a dangerously rudderless 11-year-old son. Sam receives a satchel containing $150,000, earmarked for the relatives he never knew he had. Sam and half-sister Frankie meet. Sam begins shadowing his troubled nephew. And up until the 90-minute mark, "People Like Us" dances around in circles contriving reasons, mostly emotional, some practical, why Sam would keep the big news a big secret for an ill-advised amount of screen time. (When finally delivered by Sam, the beans-spilling moment got a hearty "THANK YOU!!" from one member of a Chicago preview audience.)

A fine and moving film could be made from this story, which was inspired, loosely, by events and situations in the lives of Kurtzman and Orci. But the script sets an awfully low bar for Sam's redemption: All he must do is not keep the money for himself, and to learn to say, "I love you," and to generally be less of a punk.

Many, I suspect, will find the film's climactic assault on the tear ducts effective. But in his debut feature outing as a director, Kurtzman — whose producing and/or writing credits with Orci include the frantic thriller"Eagle Eye"and the"Transformers"pictures — hammers every scene and eye blink with a heavy hand. This film is shot and edited like a second-rate tent-pole action picture. A key moment early on, in which Sam's mother hauls off and slaps his face, becomes a nerve-jangling five-shot sequence, pushy and false. Why? Why shoot it that way?

Chris Pine portrays Sam; Elizabeth Banks, Frankie; Michael Hall D'Addario, the preteen wiseacre Josh; and Michelle Pfeiffer brings a weary ex-groupie glamour to Sam's mother, Lillian. Pine has considerable presence and tons of promise, though playing a relatably dislikable fellow often he's just dislikable. In the"Star Trek" reboot (which Kurtzman and Orci wrote), Pine brought a piercing Shatnerian intensity to every looming close-up. That same quality is a bit much for the parameters of this story, and Kurtzman's technique behind the camera has the effect of crowding the performers.

Banks and Pfeiffer fare the best by focusing on directness and simplicity. A particularly sharp scene between Pfeiffer and Pine, in which they smoke a joint and loosen up their defenses, high up in the Hollywood Hills, stands in stark relief to the rest of the film. Not even the egregious soundtrack, which never gives anybody or anything a moment's rest, can wreck it. Kurtzman has learned much about how to engineer a blockbuster, and how certain cuts, lighting, music cues, etc. can. With a story this size and shape, the engineering is entirely different, more instinctual, less tightly calibrated. Or should be.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'People Like Us' -- 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, some drug use and brief sexuality)

Running time: 1:55

Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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