by Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic, published on Friday, April 11, 2008|
There's a gulf between what "Smart People" should be and what it actually is. Certainly, the basis was here for a winning hand. The film is thoughtful and well acted, with three appealing performers at its center: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page. All three have their moments, and Quaid and Page have the opportunity to build eccentric, troubled and interesting characters.
But the movie gets bogged down in the formula conventions of romantic comedy, and in the process, it loses all honesty. That's a particular problem for a movie of this kind. A plot-driven action drama is one thing, but when you're watching a character-driven movie about people, the one thing expected is that the movie won't bend the characters to suit a formula. This one does, and it never recovers.
At least the movie provides a showcase for Quaid to demonstrate his meticulous character work and versatility. He probably wasn't the first actor who came to mind when the filmmakers started looking for someone to play an emotionally locked-down English professor. Quaid can play exuberant and zany, and he can play quiet and dignified, but he's rarely called upon to play petty. But here he's a pedant, one who's emotionally scarred, self-protective, encased in cynicism and paralyzed by weariness, a windbag who uses words not to communicate but to block communication. We've all known people like that, and apparently Quaid has, too.
The script, by Mark Poirier, has the professor pegged, but even better, it gives him precisely the sort of teenage daughter such a man would probably have. As Vanessa, Page is hyper-smart, hyper-analytical, very funny and cynical, but she's also emotionally disconnected, and she has no friends. Because she's played by Page and because Vanessa is good with a wisecrack, she will inevitably be written off by many as just another version of Page's Juno character. But Vanessa is needy and has a despairing awareness of her own confusion, requiring different colors from Page. She gets to drop the self-protective veneer and show doubt.
"Smart People" tells the story of a widower who has turned away from the world of feelings, so it's no surprise when the movie starts tracing his journey, albeit a slow one, back to the land of the living. The catalyst comes in the form of a former student, now a doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom the professor starts dating.
But the movie collapses because it's unwilling to invest the necessary time and creative energy into the story of that relationship, even though that relationship represents the movie's only real event. The script lavishes time on the daughter's complicated and amusing friendship with her uncle (Thomas Haden Church), who lives with them, and relies on little plot shortcuts when it comes to the professor and his lady friend.
In American romantic comedies, why do people go to bed with each other so quickly? No, it's not because we're all so incredibly sexy here, even though it's true. It's because screenwriters are lazy or incapable of depicting the most difficult thing there is to show: People gradually getting to know each other. Likewise, why do almost all romantic comedies usually have lovers getting into some bogus argument (about two-thirds in), after which the lovers break up and remain out of contact (almost) indefinitely? It's because, if characters aren't speaking to each other, screenwriters don't have to depict the specific nature of the characters' intimacy. Nothing has to be invented or imagined.
"Smart People" seems as though it's going to be a smart movie, and along the way it suggests what might have been. But in the end it's neither smart nor about people. It makes a few promises, and then breaks them.