by Gary Dean Murray, published on April 19, 2008, 3:41am|
At its core, Smart People is about dysfunction after a tragic event, the death of a spouse. Dennis Quaid is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a literature teacher who is so self-centered he never knows his students names. With the chairmanship of the department coming open, he wants to grab that brass ring. In the publish or perish world that is modern academia, he has a new book ready that has been turned down by just about every publisher. His home front isnt much better. He has a college son who is sewing his oats and a high school daughter who is outwardly perfect but inwardly in turmoil.
Two events turn this world on its ear. First, Lawrences neer to do adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) pops up looking for money and a place to stay. Lawrence suffers a blow to the head and is told by his emergency room doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) that he cannot drive for six months. So Chuck becomes his driver. And in a twist that only happens in movie plot heaven, it seems that the good doctor was a former student who still has that schoolgirl crush on her former professor. This upheaval drives Smart People through all the complications that are life.
Chuck is truly the opposite of his brother. As he falls into the family he tries to right the wrongs he sees. He takes the dead wifes clothes to Goodwill and gets his niece high then drunk. None of these work out the way he thinks they will. On the dating front, Lawrence and the good doctor are not hitting it off. He is out of practice in having to be a human being and not the pontificating boor he has become. But for some reason the doctor sees something hidden deep inside. Well, all of these scenes are so stereotypical that even a person who has never seen a movie can guess where this is going.
And that is the biggest fault of this work. It is poorly written. The characters are flatly drawn and mechanical in their mood and emotion. If it feels like you have seen this before, it is because you have. At 90 minutes this film seems like it runs past the two-hour mark. It delivers some true comedy at about an hour in, but it is too far-gone to win the audience. The other problem is with the direction of Noam Murro. Artistically he gets some stellar performances from all of these actors but technically there is a not much going on. His shot selections are annoying which means they are noticeable. In telling the tale, his direction distracts from the narrative.
But the performances are winning. Ellen Page can make just about any script work. She has that kind of skill. It's just that her character is a cliché. The same goes for our doctor with a crush, Sarah Jessica Parker. Shes a fine actress but isnt given much of a part even though she is the female lead. For some reason, Smart People is a mans world. Dennis Quaid and Thomas Haden Church do play well off each other, making their scenes the most interesting of the bunch. But a few nice scenes do not make a great movie.
Smart People is an ironic title for this film. It should have been called Book Smart People. Because even though these individuals show off their learned knowledge, they seldom show much actual intelligence.