As Shakespeare demonstrated, even groundlings can be moved by the plight of kings. So why does it often rankle when Hollywood stages a pity party for the privileged?
Nothing in the dour staging of "People Like Us" suggests the title is meant to be ironic, even though the hero (played by Chris "Captain Kirk" Pine -- how's that for an Everyman?) is an East Coast overstock salesman with a smart, beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) in his bed, Federal Trade Commission consumer cops on his back and an estranged music-mogul father -- the man, we're told, who "got Columbia to sign" Elvis Costello and, less notably, "discovered" Kajagoogoo -- back home in Los Angeles.
A drama of family reunion and reconciliation from writer-director Alexander Kurtzman, the sudsy yet earnest "People Like Us" is too contrived to be convincing, despite a wonderful performance by Elizabeth Banks as Frankie, a single working mother whose bartender job requires her to dress in "upscale skank" (miniskirt, hoop earrings and cleavage-baring top) while spending less time then she'd like with her troubled 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario, an eccentric presence in the Mason Reese tradition), whose incongruously husky voice is a match for his jaded, smart-aleck wit.
Frankie and Sam, the salesman, meet after Sam is shamed into returning to Los Angeles for the funeral of his father. He's greeted by his lonely, neglected artist mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) with a hard slap to the face, followed by the words: "I'm glad you're home." Unfortunately, Kurtzman apparently doesn't see the camp humor in this type of melodrama, instead using dim lighting and choppy editing to impose a pretense of "realism" on the material.
Sam is shocked to learn he has a secret sister: Frankie. (Her backstory is delivered in a convenient autobiographical monologue, when Sam trails her to a recovery meeting.) Moviegoers might expect "People Like Us" to be a romantic comedy, but in fact it's something more unusual: a love story about siblings. Even so, the plotting is familiar, as Sam -- keeping his identity a secret -- works his way into Frankie's life, even insisting that Josh abandon contemporary metal for The Clash, Gang of Four and Television. (This seems like the thousandth movie I've seen this year in which someone's taste in supposedly "superior" music is supposed to be proof of overall worthiness.)
The wrap-up is sweet, but nothing in his directorial debut suggests that Kurtzman is better suited for "human" drama than genre spectacle: He made his fortune as a writer and producer on such projects as "Alias," "Xena: Warrior Princess," the "Star Trek" reboot and "Cowboys & Aliens."
Rated PG-13 for language, drug use and brief sexuality.