If there's one thing that drives me nuts in movies, it's watching a character make a contrived and exhaustingly incorrect decision that looms over an entire movie, creating its only source of tension. When it happens, you can bet it's also heading towards a predictable end. People Like Us is founded on such a premise, so it took some work to get itself out of the mire--but it does.
Sam (Chris Pine) is a fast-talking smooth operator, deftly maneuvering through every challenge life throws at him. Sure, he has no money, but he looks good convincing people to trust him, so he gets by. His father he wasn't close to, a music producer who never achieved the stardom he deserved, passes away leaving his wife Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) even more vulnerable and alone than usual, since her jerk son never comes around. It's hard to like Sam. He borders on being unlovable. So when Sam learns that his father had a daughter he never knew about (Elizabeth Banks), and she has a son, and Sam has been given the task of giving them some cash their father left behind, it's not immediately apparent what he will do. But it's not shocking that he befriends her and chickens out in telling her who he really is.
The movie benefits from painting characters that usually fall into cliche hell (like the recovering alcoholic single mom who is stressed but making it work, and the latch-key kid who shoplifts, and the disapproving lawyer girlfriend) with more humor than usual, and the actors work overtime in making that the real focus here. Of course Sam is going to learn something about himself and others and what family really means. But seeing he and Elizabeth Banks wandering through Los Angeles, eating tacos and talking about their least proud moments, is intimate and endearing. I was won over by their Wonder Twin power-activating. In fact, they had so much chemistry I was really sad that they weren't going to get together (unless the movie took a real turn away from the norm).
This movie also marks the first time in her last three movies that Michelle Pfeiffer has played a real human being--or even a watchable one. Her cartoony and awkward roles in New Year's Eve and Dark Shadows made me sad, because you know they weren't her fault. Even Catwoman can't fix a flat script. Lillian is a woman worn down by a man who had her in the palm of his hand for many years, and now that he's gone, she's left having to reassess her entire life. And she is also obsessed with Entenmann's baked goods. I related instantly. This role is more towards The Story of Us than anything she's done recently, which means I need to buy it on DVD and watch it while wearing sweat pants when I need to feel comforted. With all of its sweetness, humanity, and believability, People Like Us is much better than it looks on paper.