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» 411Mania Movie Review - Smart People

The indy comedy genre strikes again
by Jeremy Thomas, published on August 12, 2008

I’ll confess; I’m getting a little tired of the independent comedy. Part of the appeal in independent films is that they’re different and unique from the cookie-cutter format with which Hollywood sloughs out loud and generic action films, gory and stupid horror films, formulaic and predictable romantic comedies…you get the picture. Amidst all of that big-budget mediocrity, you can occasionally find something truly unique and a head above the rest, but for the most part, independent film makers have been the way to go when you really wanted to go off the cinematic beaten path to find something different. I enjoy independent cinema for these very reasons, and some of the best films of the past several years have carried that pedigree, from Juno and The Savages to Grace is Gone, Little Miss Sunshine and Talk to Me.

The problem is, even the indy comedy has become a homogenized little “fit the mold” style movie process. You can tell most indy comedies right off the bat. They all feature the same sort of music for one thing, a mellow singer/songwriter style that plays over seemingly hand-drawn credits and/or a similar sort of DVD menu. They all tout their film festival roots in the trailers, on the DVD box, in the poster, everywhere they can. They all star one of the current indy darlings—a role that’s been filled by one actor after another, from Parker Posey and Laura Linney to Thomas Haden Church and Philip Seymour Hoffman, or current independent favorite Ellen Page. And they feature quirky characters, far from the glamorous life depicted in most Hollywood films, dealing with family, sickness, relationships, drugs, or possibly some combination thereof. Needless to say, when I heard about Smart People, I was not particularly enthused. The film, which stars Haden Church and Page among others, more or less screamed about its similarities with recent films such as Juno and The Savages. It was released by Miramax Films in April of this year, managing to gross approximately nine million dollars during a traditionally weak movie-going month and garnering mixed reviews. This week, it receives its DVD bow, where most of these films can find their niche and success.

The Movie

The film stars Dennis Quaid as Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lawrence is, from the moment we first lay eyes on him, a miserable man. He’s uninterested in his students to the point of not remembering ones who have had multiple classes with him, and arrogant to his faculty mates around him. He’s a widower, and his son James (Holmes) has pretty much no relationship with him while his seventeen year-old daughter Vanessa (Page) is practically a surrogate wife in how she takes care of the house…when she’s not studying to get a perfect score on the SAT’s or attending Young Republican and Model UN meetings. He’s writing a book described as a “criticism on criticism” that’s being rejected by every publisher that looks at it, and nothing is really going his way. The arrival of his adopted brother Chuck (Church), a shiftless slacker who’s been moving from one door-to-door job after another, doesn’t do much to help his mood. After turning down Chuck before Chuck can even ask for help, Lawrence goes to visit James, during which his car gets towed. When he tries to get the car out of school impound, his arrogance gets him nowhere, and in trying to break in to retrieve his briefcase he injures himself, suffering a trauma-induced seizure. When he wakes up, he’s in the care of Dr. Janet Hartigan, a former student of his, who tells him he can’t drive for six months due to the seizure. With Chuck moving in to help drive Lawrence around, the good professor tries to start a relationship while managing the lives of his emotionally damaged family, to varying degrees.

One of the problems with Smart People is that it very nearly hamstrings itself right out of the gate. The first several minutes is filmed so as to show Lawrence in the worst light possible. He clearly cares about no one or nothing other then himself as he moves through his day, changing clocks so he doesn’t have to deal with genuine interest in his students and spending far more time worrying about his chance to become head of the department then he does his own family. This is a character that, right out of the gate, is very difficult to sympathize with, and his children aren’t much better. James seems to be somewhat normal, although he has no major connection to his family; Vanessa is a twenty-first century Alex P. Keaton without the emotional sensitivity, and thinks that getting a tax write-off for her dead mother’s clothes is more important then her father’s emotional connection to them, a fact that causes Chuck to, quite accurately, call her a monster. What carries the story though the early rough patch is how subtle the sympathies toward the characters are inspired, such as hints toward Lawrence’s inability to let his wife go, or Vanessa’s fulfilling the duties of cooking and cleaning that wouldn’t otherwise get done. It’s just enough sympathy to get us through until the characters start to grow and interact, which is when the movie takes off. Writer Mark Poirier does an excellent job of building each character’s storyline and making them all grow from the point of Lawrence’s hospital encounter onward, and while the storyline wanders from time to time without any major central plot to anchor everything down, the characterization is enough to keep the viewer interested.

A large credit to the success of this movie has to go to the acting as well, though it could be said that many of the actors are playing variations of previous characters. Dennis Quaid has been in several misfires in a row before this, from 2004’s tepid The Flight of the Phoenix through the Cheaper By the Dozen wannabe Yours, Mine and Ours, then onto American Dreamz and this year’s mediocre Vantage Point. His performance as Lawrence is a return to form for him, a role reminiscent of his underrated turn in In Good Company. He creates a strong central figure in this film, lifting Lawrence off the page to make him more then just an unlikable ogre. It’s a performance that weaker actors would flounder in trying to pull off, but Quaid has a subtle sense to him of being able to convey sympathetic traits without much effort. In the role of his brother Chuck, Thomas Haden Church is pretty perfectly cast. He’s in his best Sideways-esque form by playing the irresponsible slacker who is still, despite all of his faults, the most emotionally well-grounded member of the family. Church makes Church a worthy mentor for Page’s Vanessa, who again could be viewed as a variation of a previous portrayal, a type-A Republican version of Juno. That said, Page is far less annoying then people who didn’t like the character Juno might expect, and she gives a performance that is much more layered and interesting then the mouthy teenager of her previous role. It shows Page’s growth as an actress nicely, and if she continues along that path, great things are in store for her. Of the four leads, Sarah Jessica Parker, playing love interest Janet, is perhaps the least prominent, but it’s not due to her performance, which is the most original of all four. Her doctor is nothing like her previous roles, more weary and wary then the snazzy, upbeat Carrie Bradshaw most know her as. She fits into the cast very nicely in the scenes she has, though the bulk of her time is with Quaid—someone whom with she has a strong chemistry.

Director Noam Murro, in his first feature film, proves he has the independent film motif down. He’s able to frame shots in an intimate way that makes the film very personal. Unfortunately, he also seems to rely on those very motifs too much, and it does make the film seem similar to the same types of films that have come before. A more confident director may have been able to make this film more distinguishable, and made it more interesting in the process. Murro does nothing really wrong, per se, and he’s wise enough to rely on the strengths of the script and the actors too keep the movie going. He’s just unable to make the film feel special the way its predecessors did, and it does drag things down a bit.

Film Rating: 7.0

The Video

The video transfer of Smart People as presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio is excellently done. Murro, going along with the standard indy style, keeps the colors of the film somewhat muted and not over-vibrant, and this is carried across excellently in Buena Vista’s work on the transfer. Blacks are appropriately clean, and there’s little in the way of edge enhancement or grain. This is perhaps a better video transfer then the film needed, and it certainly won’t test the limits of anyone’s television, but a high-quality transfer should always be applauded. Everything looks as good as the film can let it look.

Video Rating: 8.0

The Audio

The Dolby Digital 5.1 English Surround track is very clear, with dialogue and score nicely leveled across all speakers. There are complaints that can be made about the score itself, but certainly not the way it was carried over to DVD. The ambient sounds are strong and never lopsided, and everything comes off sounding crisp and clean, which is about as much as you can possibly ask for. Again, there’s nothing that will push the limits of audio technology, but it’s all quite serviceable. Subtitles are English, French and Spanish.

Audio Rating: 8.0

Special Features

The Smartest People: (16:30) This is your fairly standard making-of documentary, featuring the cast and crew talking about the story and the characters involved. Poirier talks about the ease of writing the film, seeing as how he knew the characters so well in his head as it is, and Murro talks about the various settings and production aspects. This is fine for what it is, though it’s nothing special.

Deleted Scenes: (9:58) We have eleven deleted scenes, all character moments that would have added little in the way of storyline to the movie. It’s perhaps good that some of them were left out, particularly one in the beginning that paints Lawrence as even more of an asshole then he first appeared, and one at the end where a student on the department head selection committee (and James’s girlfriend) tells Lawrence off in a preachy, pointless way.

Not So Smart: (2:05) This is pretty much your standard bloopers track, with cast members flubbing lines and busting up laughing. I prefer more then that from my bloopers tracks, although a point where Church misses a line and Page turns to him to say something to the effect of “How did you get an Oscar again?” is pretty funny.

Audio Commentary With Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier: Murro and Poirier love their anecdotes, from the way this track plays, and they jam-pack this track with them. It’s a nicely interesting one to listen to, as they go off track from time to time to discuss various stories around the filming. It’s missing a bit in terms of information that makes the movie more interesting, but you do learn a lot about how they made it, and they’re pretty fun to listen to.

Special Features Rating: 6.5

The 411: The performances and character arcs are what makes Smart People work. Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church turn in good performances and manage to turn some seriously unsympathetic characters into ones we can like and enjoy. The film suffers from seeming too much like previous independent comedies thanks to director Noam Murro's reliance on what's worked before in the genre, but in the end, it's the writing and acting that carries it through. A very nice technical transfer and decent special features makes this one to rent or even buy, if you're not burned out on indy comedies.

Final Score: 7.0 [ Good ]

Source: www.411mania.com

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