Many folks go to the movies because they hope those two hours will be more interesting than their ordinary lives.
So that's one question I ask when deciding whether to recommend a film: Does it hold my interest? Or would I rather be home cutting the lawn or curling up with a good book?
"People Like Us" held my interest.
The above film image released by Disney-Dreamworks II shows, from left, Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michael D'Addario in a scene from “People Like Us.”
It's far from perfect - among other things, it pushes too many buttons; but the acting is so good, and the central conflict so compelling, that I was pretty much glued to the screen.
Chris Pine ("Star Trek," "Unstoppable") plays Sam, a workaholic hustler grappling with the death of a father he didn't care for.
Hoping for a settlement (Dad was a successful record producer), Sam learns instead that his father left $150,000 in cash to a half-sister Sam never knew about. Sam's only bequest is a note asking him to take care of this unknown woman and her child.
Sam needs the money badly and vacillates, finally opting simply to befriend his "other family" - a hard-working barkeep (Elizabeth Banks) and her bright but troublesome 11-year-old son (Michael Hall D'Addario); but Sam doesn't tell them who he really is.
It's amazing how much tension the movie generates from this simple device - how badly we want Sam to come clean, especially as he grows close to Mom and son, seeming to fill a massive void in their lives.
Indeed, the movie really forces Sam to wait too long, as though the writers felt this was their only card, and they were afraid to play it too soon. But then they quickly play another - the tiresome "serious-illness" card - that suggests they feared their hand wasn't quite strong enough to begin with.
In fact, it was. This added plot strand is unnecessarily distracting. Here and elsewhere, I sensed plenty of emotional manipulation; but then, that's another reason we go to the movies, and in this case it generally works.
That's probably due to the excellent acting - vital in any film that leans so heavily on primal feelings of parents, kids and siblings (not to mention romance, with Sam's love interest nicely played by Olivia Wilde).
Pine and Michelle Pfeiffer (as Sam's mom) have some tough moments where the writing hurls them through abrupt emotional changes; but these two pros hold the scenes together surprisingly well.
Banks is superb, generating a vibrant blend of toughness and vulnerability; she is utterly believable in every scene, and probably the best thing in the film - though relative newcomer D'Addario runs a close second.
"People Like Us" will prove an easy target because of its sentimentality and occasionally weak dialog; but it's consistently absorbing - and the ending has a nice little surprise for everyone.
On the whole, it certainly beats cutting the lawn.