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'People Like Us' is a movie that is in search of an identity

By Roger Moore

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sam (Chris Pine), left, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) in "People Like Us."

Disney enterprises inc.

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"People Like Us" — ★★1/2 — Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde; PG-13 (language, some drug use and brief sexuality); in general release

"People Like Us" is a well-acted weeper that walks an unsteady line between the emotional and the darkly comical.

It's about a guy who realizes he has a half sister, and who injects himself into her life without explaining who he is. He befriends her kid, encourages her through substance abuse recovery and sets up to help her financially.

Since he's the handsome and charming Chris Pine and she's the fetching and approachable Elizabeth Banks, somebody is sure to get the wrong idea. Which is the "darkly comical" bit.

It's a "Rain Man" variation — the cynical salesman who grows as a person when he finds a sibling he never knew he had. And there's a touch of every "I meant to tell you" tale of two people, one of whom hides his or her family connection to the other.

Pine stars as Sam, whose famous record-producer dad has just died. That's inconvenient, as Sam's career is on the line at the big-time bartering business where his fast-talking shortcuts have earned the attention of the Feds and the ire of his boss (Jon Favreau).

Sam is willing to lie to his stunning girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) to get out of going to dad's funeral. He's willing to further upset his mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) to avoid going to Los Angeles. Yeah, he's selfish, we figure. But he has good reason to be. He's pretty much been left out of the will.

A note and a bundle of cash passed on by his dad's lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) could change that. There's a woman, a little older than him. And a kid. "Take care of them," his father scribbled. Give them this cash, money that Sam could certainly use to get himself out of his current fix.

Still, Sam goes to check her out. He catches up with Frankie (Banks) at her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where she reads Sam's father's obituary to the group. She's not in it.

"It's official. I don't exist."

They're related, somehow. Sam gets to know her without letting on who he is. He tries to help out with her sullen, troubled son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). He doesn't tell his mom what he's doing, doesn't take the phone calls from his boss or the Feds. And the longer he strings everybody along, the worse his big revelation is going to come off.

Pine has an easy way about him that is the best explanation for why he has been landing the big roles and has become a movie star. He makes Sam squirm without squirming at the obvious chemistry between him and Frankie, chemistry that's the furthest thing from Sam's mind. And he's simply wonderful at the film's best scenes, Sam's little life lesson lectures to Josh. It's the one thing his dad gave him that's useful.

"Everything you think is important, isn't," he counsels. Life? "Lean into it," he says. "Be there for it."

Banks, given a character packed full of flaws and packed into tight bartender shorts, sets off sparks and flirts with Sam by hinting that she has a bartender's ability to read people.

Alex Kurtzman's film meanders a lot and strains to come up with credible reasons for Sam to continue to hide his connection to Frankie long past the point of reason.

But "People Like Us" has marvelous payoffs, third-act revelations that feel both heartfelt and earned.

"People Like Us" is rated PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality; running time: 118 minutes.

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