by John DeSando, WCBEs Its Movie Time|
I know smart. My college-professor colleagues are smart, with the usual trade off of occasional neuroticism. My kids are smart, with the usual emotional distance and independence that accompany eccentricity. So Noam Murro's Smart People, about a widower professor of literature, and his brainy family initially put me off with its dysfunctional crew, but as I slowly gave myself to the cynicism and inhumanity, I realized this crazy world was one I know well, and well is it depicted in its humor and pathos.
Although Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is tenured at Carnegie Mellon and on the brink of having a book accepted for publication, he is surly to everyone else, even his young students and his feckless adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and unhappy with himself, in large part, it would seem, because of the untimely death of his talented wife that allows him to wallow unchecked in self pity. Quaid's interpretation borders on annoying, so unremittingly curmudgeonly does he play it.
Former student and head of ER at a local hospital, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), has the potential to pull him out of his funk if his devoted, brilliant, and acerbic daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) can't. Why Hartigan is attracted to him is never established, and why Parker would accept such a thankless, underdeveloped role is a mystery.
This anti-Little Miss Sunshine and close relative to Royal Tenenbaums beats all quirky family comedy/dramas for pure cynicism. However, that very dark tone throughout, even down to the somewhat contrived denouement, is the film's strength. The reality is that depressed, smart people don't immediately change; they slowly if at all join the brotherhood of man by accepting our faults, as simple as upgrading worthy student papers or asking personal questions of those students or a date.
Noah Baumbach needn't fear: Smart People is nowhere near as smart or glib as Squid and the Whale and Life Aquatic, but it brings a new dimension to the quirky family genre: honesty and gloom that translate into an enjoyable date with a dysfunctional family that's a lot like our arguably functional ones.