People Like Us (2012)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -1; L -3; S/N -.5 Running time: 1 hour 54 min.

Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Psalm 119.36

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Philippians 2.3

Director Alex Kurtzman’s film provides a welcome twist on the old romantic plot of a guy relating to a woman while holding back an important secret. The twist is that when self-centered Sam (Chris Pine) is given a bag of money by his deceased father’s lawyer to give to a boy named Josh, he learns that he has a sister and nephew unknown to him or his mother. Badly needing the money himself because of a screwed up scam, he nonetheless delays his return to New York and makes contact with the mother and son without revealing his identity. The new relationship brings out his hitherto deeply buried better qualities, making this an engaging character transformation film as well.

At first high roller Sam is such a conniving heel of a salesman for a disreputable firm that I winced at the idea of spending a couple of hours with this pond scum of a characterbut, of course, I recalled such others films as The Doctor and A Civil Action in which unlikeable characters went through a process of renewal. Sam has such issues with his record producer father that he had received the news of the old man’s death as an inconvenient interruption, being in trouble with a client angry over has latest scam, his boss ordering him to fix things, and even the Federal Trade Commission demanding an accounting of his bad business practices. Sam deliberately leaves his wallet in the car when he and his lover Hannah (Olivia Wilde) go to catch a plane for Los Angeles to attend the funeral. Hannah is upset when, denied boarding because he cannot produce a photo ID, they return to their car and she spots the wallet. His mother Lilian (Michelle Pfeiffer) is even more ticked off when they arrive late that night, hours after the funeral.

Sam is put out because his father has left a business mess for Lilian to clean up and willed to him just his large record collection and memorabilia—and, the family lawyer delivers to him the next day, a shaving kit bag. Sam is taken aback when he opens it and finds $150 K in hundred dollar bills. But according to the note, the money isn’t for him, but is to be given to a “Josh” at a certain address. We learn that Sam has at least a shred of decency left when, instead of throwing the note away and pocketing the money, he goes to the address, a resident motel, to discover who Josh is. Okay, then, maybe it’s because his curiosity is stronger than his greed and chicanery.

Whatever the reason, a string of incidents enmesh Sam in a series of events revolving around what turns out to be his sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), and her troubled 11 year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario). That he lacks the will to reveal early on that he is brother and nephew is a plot device a bit difficult to swallow. As an only child myself, I know that I would probably have blurted out upon first sight, gSis!h But then this is Hollywood telling the story, and they want to ladle on a thick layer of melodrama. Given this caveat, the rest of the film is a pleasure to watch, the talented cast making us feel and care for the characters far more than the artificial plot might warrant. Frankie and Josh are especially admirable characters, she, a recovering alcoholic, fighting her own way up out of an unsavory past as she tries to be a good mother to a son who has never known his father. These all might be people like us, but their story is uniquely their own.

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