published on Tuesday 23 September 2008|
One might think that a film entitled Smart People would be a turn off to mainstream moviegoers, what, with the smarmy title and allusions to a focus on people smarter than you. They would be right. That being said, first-time director Noam Murro and freshman film scribe, Mark Poirier, are not aiming the film at lovers of all things "boom" and "stabby stab", but at the educated, Cabernet (or craft beer) drinking, alternative paper reading, lovers of indie films. Those are my people and I love you. (Although I do likey the "pop bang whiz".) While the core indie scene has produced sparkling mainstream hits like the overly mentioned Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, it goes to show that for every hit, there must be a miss and Smart People, though not without its charms, is it.
Dr. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), as the name would indicate, is a socially retarded smarty pants with a nasty streak of elitism. Hes also a professor of Victorian English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Detached from his class, his family and just about every aspect of joy, Lawrence is your classic example of a misanthropic man in need of love and redemption. Enter "adopted" brother, Chuck Wetherhold (Thomas Haden Church), and as the name would indicate, hes your classic example of a neer do well schemer tasked with lifting the veil of human intolerance for his brother. After Lawrence is knocked unconscious after attempting to rescue his car from the campus impound lot, ER doctor and former student of Dr. Wetherholds, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), informs the cerebral heavyweight that hell be unable to drive for six months due to his brain injury. Now, forced to accept help from another human being, Dr. Weatherhold exchanges a bed in his home for a personal chauffeur service from Chuck.
While Chuck may be decent at selling calling cards in South America and losing 100 pounds in a week (ask me how!), he stinks as a driver. Stranded on the side of the road one night by his forgetful brother, Janet passes by and offers a ride to the good doctor where they discuss his new book entitled You Cant Read! along with his own bloviated insights into Victorian authors. The two begin dating (what a catch), much to the chagrin of Lawrences precocious daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page). In the motherly role left vacant by the death of her own mother, Vanessa is leery of Janets intentions and warns her that her dads heart is still in a fragile place. So much so that he has a closet full of her clothing that he refuses to depart with. Meanwhile, as loser Chuck exposes Young Republican, Vanessa (and avid fan of tax write-offs), the joys of public drunkenness and cannabis, he also bonds with Lawrence and they both learn to appreciate family and the meaning of Thanksgiving just as Janet and Lawrences relationship take an unexpected turn.
Noam Murro and Mark Poirier paint a picture so lifeless and uninteresting that its hard to look past the unsympathetic and unrelatable characters presented. Audiences will be hard pressed to find a single trait that resonates within Lawrence and Vanessa and its rather tragic since were stuck in a room with them for a long 95 minutes. Dennis Quaid nails the pompous professor character. Aloof while perfecting a "punch me in the throat" sarcasm, Quaids Lawrence Wetherhold is good but brings nothing new to the table of cynical jerks. He could have practiced some restraint, had Murro been involved with his characterization. Thomas Haden Church brings the only levity to the film by way of ass crack sightings. His characters lackadaisical approach to daily life is a frothy beer to this films blistering hot day and Ellen Page is perfection, in her soon to be pigeonholed, sarcastic upwards teen role. Sarah Jessica Parkers subtlety of dialogue manages to keep her in the realm of believability and never enters "Denise Richards is a rocket scientist The World Is Not Enough territory. Smart Peoples cast is not at issue here. Just its direction or lack thereof.
While the film brims with self-loathing, unlikable characters who spend for too much time verbalizing their disdain for each other, Smart People, is at times thoughtful and witty. Mixed in between cut shots of Quaids paunch and an oddly placed and largely unknown reoccurring character, is dialogue that shines when it is not so forcefully played. Mark Poiriers screenplay could have been presented in a different light had the direction been a bit more hands-on especially when it comes to Dennis Quaid. Unfortunately Noam Murros first venture into film direction, turns Smart People into a dumb exercise of the unoriginal.