Those who are drawn to adult family dramas and who don't mind heavy-handed emotional manipulation might like People Like Us (* * out of four, PG-13, opens Friday).
But the movie's soap opera quality undermines its efforts to tell a family saga with much believability.
Alex Kurtzman, who wrote Cowboys & Aliens and Transformers, may not have been the ideal writer/director to pen a heartfelt story about personal redemption. His directorial debut, with its quick-cutting style, seems influenced by those action films. A gentler approach would have made the story more convincing.
Sam (Chris Pine), a cocky New York salesman, pulls an unlikely and whip-fast transformation from shady to kindhearted when he uncovers a startling family secret. His professional world unraveled on the same day he learned his estranged father had died, and he grudgingly returns home to L.A.
Upon arrival, he immediately locks horns with his self-absorbed mom Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer). When nasty revelations about her surface, she emerges as one of the least sympathetic moms to darken screens for a while.
Sam meets with his father's lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) and is given an odd task: to hand over $150,000 to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a woman living on the margins with her reckless 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). The young actor convincingly portrays Josh, who is a wayward wiseacre yet actually a lovable moppet.
It turns out that Frankie is Sam's half-sister, his dad's daughter from a liaison he had all but abandoned. Sam had no idea she existed.
One of the hardest aspects to swallow is the way Sam chooses to interact with Frankie. Where most people would likely just introduce themselves, Sam decides to sneakily insinuate himself in her life, pretending to be a member of her AA group.
It takes most of the movie before Sam tells Frankie his real identity, well after the awkward moment in which Frankie mistakes his attentions for romantic ardor. The big reveal is, of course, what the drama hinges on. But it in no way resembles how real people act. So what's meant to be a major emotional climax feels forced.
An intriguing aspect of the story is how differently brother and sister expressed their disappointment with their dad as children. Sam resented his father's obsession with his work as a music producer, and as an adult he never bothered to visit or call while his father battled cancer. Frankie spent most of her life yearning for him and craving contact.
This emotional honesty is undercut by a clichéd scene in which Sam relates "six life lessons," to Josh, passed down from his dad, as Frankie listens covertly from the hallway with a misty-eyed expression.
Mired by its mawkish over-earnestness, People Like Us doesn't actually resemble the behavior of real human beings.