Could have been a smarter story, given the cast...|
by Bob Strauss / Film Critic, published on April 10, 2008 - 02:00:59 PM PDT
Any movie called "Smart People" has to be about folks acting foolishly. And so Noam Murro's feature directing debut is.
It's not a stupid film, but it could have come off much more smartly.
Murro comes from the "Got Milk?" school of TV commercials. Novelist Mark Poirier, who scripted this comic tale of academic depression in Pittsburgh, has a bio that says he graduated from Georgetown, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Guess he learned to write about what he knows at all of those distinguished schools. But they evidently didn't teach him to use his imagination much. "Smart People" is mighty reminiscent of "Wonder Boys" and shares key elements with the other emotionally dislocated professor movie, "The Visitor," that opens in L.A. today.
"Smart" is more vulgar than that one, though, which makes for a few good laughs. Overall, however, the comedy here tends to misfire as often as it clicks, and the characters only find their third dimensions sporadically.
Dennis Quaid plays Carnegie Mellon literature maven Lawrence Wetherhold with a perpetual snarl. He has a lot to grumble about. He's dog tired of teaching and can't get his latest book published. His bum of an adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), has moved into his unkempt house once again. Lawrence's overachieving teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page, acting even smarter than she did in "Juno," though not as successfully smart-mouthed), has no friends and is a Young Republican. And while trying to get his car out of impound, the disheveled crank falls off a fence and busts himself up enough that he can't drive anyway.
The only good thing about any of this is reconnecting with Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), an emergency room doctor who had a crush on Lawrence in college. They begin a tentative relationship hampered by his full-blown misanthropy and her purported character flaws. I say purported because her hesitancy seems perfectly justified; I'd keep a graceless, self-absorbed windbag like Lawrence at arm's length, too.
In fact, despite the best efforts of a game and talented cast, caring about what happens to any of "Smart's" people is more of chore than entertainment. I've never bought the notion that movie characters have to be likable - Church's "Sideways" is a sterling example of why that's not true - but this bunch of losers reinforce the notion. They just aren't rich or interesting enough for us to root for them to straighten out, which of course they do in purely pro forma ways.
That noted, "Smart People" does make marvelously wry observations about the academic and publishing worlds. Some exchanges have real intellectual zing, which can't be said of many unhappy-professor movies. Poirier obviously can write well about what he knows. But people, smart or otherwise, seem to be fairly low down on that list.