by Gary Chew, published on April 4, 2008|
Rush Limbaugh would be paranoid of three main characters portrayed in "Smart People." The first is an intellectual, self-absorbed literature professor. Another is a lonely, female physician. And then there's the professor's unemployed, ne'er-do-well brother.
And to make things scarier for Rush: everyone in "Smart People" is well, smart---even another character in this film directed by Noam Murro. That person is the only one Rush would feel at ease with: the professor's daughter. About to graduate from high school, she'll soon be on her way---with her anal personality---to Stanford.
Say hello again to Ellen Page, the fetching and cherubic young woman who wowed us and the Oscar people last year in the title role of "Juno." In "Smart People" she plays Vanessa. Vanessa volunteers for the Young Republicans.
Her father, Lawrence Wetherhold (played by Dennis Quaid) is a cranky, less conservative widower on faculty at Carnegie Mellon. Thomas Haden Church, another actor who wowed us in "Sideways" is the disarming, unemployed brother, Chuck.
And certainly not the least in any way whatsoever is a wistfully unencumbered physician and former student of Lawrence's played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Ms. Parker reminds us here in "Smart People" she is a fine actress who doesn't just do trendy Manhattan trash on television. Sarah plays Dr. Janet Hartigan and damn near steals the movie despite stiff competition from the other leading players.
You could call the Wetherholds a dysfunctional family who would all make the cut for membership in Mensa. But under their intellectual cynicism and verbal gaming lies the death of Mrs. Wetherhold: the wife, the mother. Although screenwriter Mark Poirier doesn't dwell on it or include a scene of her passing in the script, we learn that many of the negative vibes in the Wetherhold household are cover for the pain of losing her.
"Smart People" does have this dark edge but it's mostly laughs all the way. Especially the sloth of Chuck, who's wrangled free rent at his brother's place till Chuck 'grows a money tree' or something. Then there's Vanessa developing an amorous teeny-bopper attitude toward her uncle Chuck after he moves in. (Don't worry, Chuckles holds on to his honor.) And I did mention the scholarly book Lawrence has written for which Vanessa has given him the title, "You Can't Read!" Seems the New York publishers are keen on the marketability of the title.
I'm thinking director Murro could have put another scene in this movie showing Lawrence and Vanessa promoting the new book with Glenn Beck on CNN Headline News.
Janet Hartigan, however, is the most complex and interesting person in "Smart People." And Sarah Jessica Parker puts all of that complexity on her striking face in subtle and convincing ways. I've never seen her do this kind of turn and I'm impressed. You see, Parker is not the funny one in the movie. The other three: Quaid, Page and Church do that. And they do it well.
"Juno" is not much like this new Ellen Page film but there is one thing the two pictures have in common. I'll not say what that is here. But as "Smart People" comes to a close, you'll know.