Sam (Chris Pine) is a businessman hustler in Los Angeles. He's a middle man, a barterer, continually on the phone, flouting various federal regulations in the continued search for commerce. He'll trade you tires for chickens, taking only a small percentage for his troubles. He's eminently likable, though also massively smarmy. However, when a personal lightning bolt hits him - his father has passed away - he's drawn back to the homefront to put his father's affairs in order. Yep, "People Like Us" is set up in the same manner as "Elizabethtown," but with Michelle Pfeiffer instead of Susan Sarandon, and Olivia Wilde instead of Kirsten Dunst. This is progress?
Seriously though, "People Like Us" is a story about relationships, be they of the girlfriend, sibling, maternal, or paternal variety. And, so far as the acting goes, it's a pretty solid little piece of filmmaking. There are a few "gems" of performances on display. Elizabeth Banks is great as Frankie, a bartender who works hard for her money and whom is rarely treated right. Olivia Wilde (as Hannah) is Sam's girlfriend, and she does well in a somewhat limited role. Michelle Pfeiffer is Sam's mother, and she's equal parts jagged edges and sorrow, which rings especially true given the circumstances. No, there's no quibbling with the actors (or the acting) on display in "People Like Us." Instead, the plot choices undermine the whole equation, as there's a false tension throughout that can only be delved into with spoilers ... which we simply don't cotton to around these parts.
The fact is, and because of this "one big choice," it's safe to say the middle of "People Like Us" drags like an overgrown tortoise. The structure of the piece is all wonky, suffocating the momentum before it ever really gets started. The relationship between Sam and Frankie is highly convoluted, which isn't a deal breaker per se, but does lead to more than one scene where you'll throw your hands up at the screen in exasperation. If there's one annoying technique that's infiltrated the industry, refusing to be eradicated, it's the "main character hiding a big secret from other main character" method. It doesn't allow an audience any room to intellectually operate. We're omniscient in this equation, as we know what's being hidden, but we're also painfully aware nothing can move forward until the person on-screen is fully cognizant as well. So you end up thinking, over and over, "well, he should have told her right there!" and "Ugh, how does she not ask more questions?" As an audience we need something to figure out, to chew on, or to ponder what we'd do in a similar sticky situation. The answers to everything in "People Like Us" are mostly too easy, you'd simply be up-front with people when given the opportunity, right? That's not at all what happens here.
To its credit, "People Like Us" ends very well. There's a really touching and heartfelt scene, and you'll likely find yourself drawn into the film anew at this point. But you're already two hours in! Sure, this "closer" moment works on an emotional level, but it's not worth the time it takes to get there. Sadly enough, "People Like Us" doesn't seem to be about people like us after all. It's about people in a movie that hide big plot-changing secrets from each other for an hour, and there's very little that's modern, exciting, or worth recommending about that process.