What happens when two skilled toymakers try to make a real boy? They end up with “People Like Us,” an earnest, slickly polished tear-jerker where we keep glimpsing the plastic underneath the characters’ clothes.
The toymakers are director Alex Kurtzman and his writing partner Roberto Orci, who are better known for penning the “Transformers” movies, “Cowboys & Aliens,” and (in their favor) the slam-bang “Star Trek” revamp of a few years back. They make sleek, noisy, no-cal entertainments with the multiplex in mind. “People Like Us” — note the title — is their version of an indie film, which means it’s about human beings rather than extraterrestrials and emotions rather than explosions.
Fair enough, and the fact that the plot is inspired by events from both men’s lives raises hopes that this project will feel as personal as it apparently is. (Co-producer Jody Lambert helped out on the script.) Chris Pine plays Sam, an amoral young shark whose semi-legal business in bartered goods is coming under scrutiny from the feds. He flees home just in time to miss the funeral of his father, Jerry, a legendary LA record producer and flawed dad whom Sam has spent his life avoiding. Surprise: Jerry’s friend and attorney (Philip Baker Hall) passes along $150,000 in a shaving kit intended for a little boy, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), whom Sam has never heard of. Josh’s mother, a twelve-stepping bartender named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), turns out to be Sam’s half sister. What would you do in such a situation?
If you guessed that you’d hide your identity from your new sibling while trying to befriend her by turning up at AA meetings and bonding with her son, you’re probably ready to help Kurtzman and Orci on their next “Transformers” film. “People Like Us” establishes a situation that immediately turns borderline creepy, since the relationship between Sam and Frankie travels along what feel like conventional romantic-drama lines. It’s hard to root for your hero when he appears to be setting himself up for incest.
Pine, who played young Captain Kirk in that “Star Trek,” is good enough in a secondhand Tom Cruise role to keep us invested, and his scenes with D’Addario as his nephew are cute. Like a lot of screenwriters, Kurtzman and Orci name-check hip pop-culture references to get us to like their hero, but at least the list of classic post-punk albums that Sam passes along to Josh is impeccable. The younger actor is appealingly lumpy but his character is too much the precocious tween-age delinquent with a heart of gold to not seem awfully familiar.
Likewise, Banks is a smart actress in a shopworn role: the tough-talking tootsie who just wants a break. A few decades ago, the part might have been played by Michelle Pfeiffer, but she’s busy playing Sam’s mother, a stressed former hippie who fell under the dead dad’s spell. (He married her because she reminded him of Joni Mitchell.) All these actors do better during the first half, before the overlong confessional monologues kick in and the filmmakers start saying what they should be showing.
In a way, you can’t blame them. Kurtzman and Orci’s usual fare is so overloaded with quips and detonations that they must have been saving up dialogue for just this occasion. Plot, too: The movie ends more than once but not enough to justify what feels like a pro forma cycle of revelation, anger, and climactic forgiveness. There’s a final twist that’s good for a few happy sniffles, but the queasier aspects of Sam and Frankie’s relationship never go away. Points to the filmmakers for trying to transform themselves, but “People Like Us” is neither optimal nor prime.