March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer bring real fire to a warmed-over plot in 'People Like Us'

Hey there, "People Like Us": What's a nice movie like you doing in a summer like this?

After all, director Alex Kurtzman's based-on-a-true-story drama features no pyrotechnics, no eye-searing digital effects and not a single superhero. In fact, Sam (Chris Pine) and Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) are more or less the opposite of heroic: He's an increasingly anxious huckster who talks faster than he thinks, while she's an acerbic alcoholic who works double shifts in a swanky cocktail lounge and isn't having much luck disciplining her smart-mouthed, soon-to-be-expelled 11-year-old son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario).

Sam is from New York; Frankie and Josh live in L.A. They are brought together when Sam and his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), come to California for the funeral of Sam's emotionally distant dad, Jerry. He was a record producer and artists-and-repertoire executive who has left the cash-starved Sam nothing more than a jaw-dropping library of records and a shaving kit. Sam fled his family's Laurel Canyon home at the first opportunity, and his tense mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), can't bring herself to welcome him back with open arms.

Without giving too much away, Sam ends up easing his way into the lives of Frankie and Josh, like a Santa Ana wind out of nowhere. Unfortunately, this happens because "People Like Us" follows the old I've-got-a-secret plot that has spawned hundreds of mediocre romantic comedies; if Sam could bring himself to stop stalking and start talking to Frankie and Josh, the central problem would be quickly, if not easily, resolved. Since he doesn't, Sam starts to look a mite manipulative and devious.

The movie has several noticeable flaws, the biggest ones being Kurtzman's tendency to cut quickly from image to image instead of allowing important moments a little breathing room, and the usually on-the-mark A.R. Rahman's overpowering, sometimes saccharin-soaked score, which keeps threatening to drown out the dialogue (if the late Jerry had stuck around, he might have ordered a remix on this film).

But "People" eventually makes its points and provides a fairly convincing catharsis. Its not-so-secret weapons are Banks and Pfeiffer and, to a slightly lesser degree, Pine, who does an impressive job of making a case for the questionable behavior of this somewhat unpleasant young go-getter. Banks' Frankie is a volcano of mixed emotions, a street-smart, suspicious woman with a dismal past and the keen instincts of a professional survivor; it's the kind of meaty role that turned actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford into household names 75 years ago, and Banks slyly handles almost every conversation as if she were juggling balls of fire, desperate to avoid being singed and well aware that she could do a lot of damage if she wanted to.

Pfeiffer brings real resonance and more than a hint of subdued sorrow to Lillian, who gave up her dreams of becoming a singer to bask in the reflected radiance of someone else's spotlight. In a strong monologue, she recalls how her husband-to-be introduced her to all her idols ("I met Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks and Linda Ronstadt…") and then made certain she would never get the break she had hoped for.

Despite its missteps, "People" manages to straighten out its tangle of emotions in a reasonably satisfying way. While Kurtzman and co-writer Roberto Orci built their careers on the "Transformers" movies and Pine's outstanding 2009 retooling of "Star Trek," they manage to resist throwing in any killer robots, death rays or sinister aliens. All they offer instead is the combined force of Banks, Pine and Pfeiffer -- and that turns out to be plenty.