Posted by Edward Douglas on January 21, 2008 5:06 AM|
Smart People (Miramax April 11)
Directed by Noam Murro; Written by Mark Jude Poirier
Starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, David Denman, Camille Mana
Miramax probably knew that they had very little to lose by premiering commercial director Noam Murro's feature film debut "Smart People" at the Sundance Film Festival this year. After all, a star-studded indie drama like this one fits right in with Sundance, and a world premiere is sure to fill the Eccles Theatre. Sure enough, there wasn't an empty seat in the house as the stargazers were there with cameras ready to take pictures of the film's cast in attendance. Gauging by the audience reaction to the movie, this screening should help the company's spring release more than last year's Sundance premiere of "Eagle vs. Shark" did.
When you watch a lot of movies, there comes a point where you've seen so many that you know every possible combination and formula, making a perfectly funny, sweet and intelligent movie like this one seem far too familiar, even if the characters and situations are unique. The film's co-producer Michael London has had mainstream success with similar "mainstream indies" including Alexander Payne's "Sideways" and "The Family Stone" so it's not surprising to see some of the players from those movies showing up here.
Dennis Quaid plays Carnegie-Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a cranky know-it-all hated by his students, faculty and family alike, who ends up in the care of a former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), after a dumb accident leaves him injured. Having not been with a woman since his wife died years earlier, he decides to pursue Janet, much to the annoyance of his overly ambitious 17-year-old Young Republican daughter Vanessa, played by Ellen Page, who immediately dislikes the doctor. Things are even more complicated since Larry's good-for-nothing adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) has decided to move in, making the Wetherhold's already dysfunctional family life even worse.
A romantic dramedy about a widower trying to find new love while trying to keep his family together is somewhat of an overused premise, seen as recently as Peter Hedges' "Dan in Real Life," but screenwriter Mark Poirier has enough of his own voice to make this into a different movie, one that creates an intricate amalgam of dysfunctional family dynamics alongside the usual up and down romantic relationship at the film's core.
This is a very different character for Dennis Quaid who plays down his looks--shabbily dressed with an untrimmed beard and a noticeable paunchwith all sorts of ticks and quirky habits used to deal with the death of his wife. (Like Miles from "Sideways," he's also a failed author whose book has been rejected by every publisher.) It's very much the type of role we might have seen Jack Nicholson play 15 to 20 years ago, and Quaid can certainly do worse for a career trajectory than to follow Jack. Sarah Jessica Parker's character isn't as much of a stretch, although she's an enigmatic woman who has difficulty connecting to men. As much as we want to see the relationship between the two of them work out, he's such a pompous ass most of the time that some may be surprised that Janet gives him a second chance after their disastrous first date. Essentially, this is a man so caught up in his own life and opinions that he doesn't notice the things going on around him, even though it's hard not to sympathize with his inability to get over the loss of his wife. Even so, his son (played by Ashton Holmes) has already sickened of his father's behavior, leaving only Vanessa as her father's biggest cheerleader and fan, imitating his general disdain for people who aren't smart as them.
Anyone who saw "Sideways" (also produced by London) and "Juno" won't be surprised that Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page steal the movie whenever they're on screen, as both of them have a way of delivering every line in an inimitable style that makes them instantly funny. (In case you were wondering, Page is indeed as funny in this as she was in "Juno" although this is a very different character.) The scenes with Church and Page together are really the best part of the movie, as their awkward relationship breaks away from the norm when the teenager develops an inappropriate crush on the bad influence step-uncle who gets her stoned and drunk. Their secondary plot is a nice way to break things up rather than focusing merely on the relationship between Quaid and Parker. While Church is able to get laughs merely by his outlandish appearance, sporting a bushy moustache and crazy hair, and once we're used to that, we end up seeing way more of his ass than necessary, even if each time it still warrants laughs. Out of the entire cast, Ashton Holmes' character seems the least relevant and necessary to the story, only there to act as a target for Vanessa's acerbic wit.
For his directorial debut, Noam Murro wisely doesn't go overboard with flashy camerawork or editing, instead allowing the script and the performances by the great cast he's assembled come to the fore, something that's highly commendable. He also makes the mistake of too many first-time directors, falling so in love with the film's soundtrack that he goes overboard by jam-packing every other minute with acoustic-driven tunes. The fact that those songs are written and performed by Nuno Bettencourt, formerly of the Boston hair metal band Extreme, does help the movie break away from the normal indie alt-rock that's become standard.
While the first half of the movie is literally a laugh a minute with lots of great lines and gags, things start to get way too serious by the endagain, following the normal trajectory of this type of movieas Larry starts to realize it's time to move on and make things work with Janet. It's fairly easy to know where things are going if you've seen enough indie films, because there's few other places for things to go.
Despite my cynicism towards indie movies that follow a previously successful formula, "Smart People" has enough funny moments and original ideas within its character dynamics that it's genuinely enjoyable based on the strength of its script and cast alone.