by Ray Wong, published on Friday, April 11, 2008|
Set in academic Pittsburgh, Smart People is a personal story about a bunch of smart people doing not so smart things in some ordinary situations.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a Carnegie-Mellon University English Literature professor. He's unkempt, gruff, grumpy, self-absorbed, and generally disinterested in everything around him except his love for Victorian novels, and his own manuscript no publisher wants to touch. He's also widowed with two children: James (Ashton Holmes), a Carnegie-Mellon undergrad who is trying to impress his father, and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a sharp-tongued young Republican who just got accepted to Stanford.
A series of circumstances result in Lawrence having a stress-induced seizure. His attending doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) happens to be a former student who harbored a crush on him. Of course, Lawrence doesn't remember her. Forbidden by law to drive for six months, Lawrence grudgingly accepts it when his drifter of an adoptive brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), volunteers to drive him around, for a stipend and free room and board.
Nonetheless, Lawrence takes on an interest in Janet, even to his daughter's objection. Meanwhile, Vanessa develops an unhealthy affection for her uncle. Lawrence is up for a promotion at Carnegie-Mellon and a big publisher suddenly shows an interest in his intellectually stiff novel. Everything seems to be coming along until Lawrence is forced to realize that he and everyone surrounding him are falling apart.
Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point) is getting better and better with age. A would-be heartthrob in his younger years, the lack of superstardom seemed to have mellowed and seasoned him to be a damn good actor. Here, as an overweight, self-absorbed intellectual, Quaid gives an affecting, nuanced performance even as his character isn't all that likable. He's given his character a deeper core and a soft edge around his hard shell.We can feel that a good guy is in there ready to emerge, even if he needs a lot of prodding.
Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) is also very good as the conflicted doctor who genuinely likes her Professor despite all his obvious flaws -- and hers, too. Her affection toward him seems to be more on an intellectual level than physical and emotional. Her characterization is subdue and understated. Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3) projects his Sideway character and serves as a counterpoint to Lawrence with wit and charm.
Ellen Page (Juno) plays the same sharp-tongued ingenue as she did in Juno but in a more down-to-Earth, uptight fashion. As her brother James, Ashton Holmes (Peaceful Warrior) doesn't really have much to do other than appearing withdrawn and pissed off.
First-time screenwriter Mark Poirier has given us a keenly observed, introspective story driven by a strong central character and witty dialogue. By far, the strength of the screenplay is in the relationships as well as Lawrence's characterization. Within minutes of the film we're given many clues of Lawrence's personalities, behavioral issues, and psychology. Unfortunately, after some contrived, rote plot development to set up the story, it begins to meander. Furthermore, we don't really get to know the characters except Lawrence. We're left to wonder about the motivations behind Janet's hot and cold attitude toward Lawrence (or Lawrence's insistence in courting her), James' indifference, or Vanessa's belligerence. Chuck's role seems to be the obligatory comic relief -- at least he does serves, at times, as Lawrence's moral mirror.
Directed by commercial director Noam Murro, the film has a no-frill, earthy quality to it. The pacing also feels languid, giving the characters time and opportunity to develop. Unfortunately, the intimate nature of the story as well as the lack of a substantial plot hinders the film. While interesting, the characters are not all that relatable and likable, and that, too, becomes a burden for the dramedy.
With its subtle plot, an intimate but slow pace, and characterization that focuses mostly on a single character, Smart People may just be too smart for us.
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti, Camille Mana, David Denman
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality, partial nudity, drug use
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Total 7.2 out of 10