by Horrorholic, published on August 22nd, 2008|
Most indie comedies seem to fit a certain criteria, incorporating the same sort of mellow singer/songwriter soundtrack and the quirky but identifiable (sometimes) characters that never rear their heads in the Hollywood system. Same goes for the reoccurring slate of actors who are on a rotating roster of sorts; people like Thomas Hayden Church, Sam Rockwell and the beloved by many, liked by few up-and-comer Ellen Page. Smart People doesnt reinvent the indie wheel or try anything drastic with its formula but it manages to turn a premise about unlikable people into a likable movie.
Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, an overly pretentious and pompous professor at a Pittsburgh area college. His students hate him, the staff hates him, his son James (Ashton Holmes) resents him and his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) respects him, simply because she doesnt know any better. After a botched attempt to get his briefcase out of an impounded car and a seizure, Lawrence ends up in the hospital under the care of Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who informs him he wont be able to drive for six months. Lucky for Lawrence, his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) drops in for a visit at the just right moment for him to be a chauffeur. As the new family unit works out its kinks, Lawrence and Janet begin a rocky relationship as they try to sell his unpublished manuscript, You Cant Read.
Lately, there seems to be a resurgence in the indie scene when it comes to horribly flawed and unlikable characters. Last year, Noah Baumbachs Margot At The Wedding carried a similar aura about it, showcasing horrible people at their worst, culminating to form an almost unwatchable film. The key to handling these sorts of projects is to inject a sense of human decency. We need a transformation to show that the characters are identifiable or we need a comedy, and since Margot was neither (though it tried to be both), it suffered harshly. The key to Smart People being a success in this sense is that you can witness the small nuances of the characters transformations over the course of the film. Theyre very subtle, like Lawrences inability to let go of his dead wifes clothes, or Vanessa taking over the cooking and cleaning for the household because no one else will do it, but they show us that these cold and stoic characters can be normal, emotional human beings.
The humor in the film works on a very dry level, working a sarcastic tone that reminded me of Seinfeld at times, particularly an exchange between Church and Parker, which plays almost like an un-aired scene from the famed series. The awkward exchanges and disjointed relationships in the Wetherhold house is what really drives the films realistic look at dysfunctional family unit. Many of the performances come off as instances of bad chemistry, though if youve ever visited your mother-in-law or met up with an estranged relative, youll realize that its actually very accurate in its portrayal.
Smart People does indeed make good on its promise of pretentious people and although it is somewhat drab looking, with gray color oversaturation keeping a death grip on the films visuals, and it runs a bit longer than I would have liked, even at 95 minutes, if youre into dry humor and want to see Ellen Page in a role that likens a much more dubdued Juno, I cant of another recent film Id recommend over this.
Commentary - Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude provide a rather dry track, never giving any real insight into the movie. They mostly mention wardrobe and art direction but in a movie that looks so drab and bleak, there really isnt a whole lot to say on that front without repeating yourself in one fashion or another. A scant few production stories are scattered throughout.
The Smartest People (16:30) - Fairly standard making-of featurette with the cast and crew. Its split into five parts, each highlighting one of the main characters with interviews from the particular actor playing them. Most interesting about this special feature is that you get to witness Murros weight loss from the Fall 2006 shoot to current day.
Deleted Scenes (9:58) - No commentary or introduction is included with the deleted scenes so some might find it lacking, since there is no clear explanation as to why the scenes were cut but I think its fairly self-explanatory: theres nothing significant enough in them to warrant padding the films already overlong run time. Out of the nine provided here, only one should have put back into the film, since it gives the reasoning behind a scene in the film that feels incoherent and random without it.
Not So Smart (2:05) - A blooper reel, with nothing particularly funny.
Smart People At Sundance (4:07) - A hidden feature, which can be accessed by pressing down on your remote when the commentary option is highlighted on the special features menu. A short highlight reel of the casts experience at Sundance this past year, sans Ellen Page, who was in Europe promoting Juno at the time (she knows what side of her bread is buttered).
Rating: 7 out of 10