Gloomy but witty, Smart People makes the rest of us look good.|
by wessingleton, published on April 10, 2008
The new film Smart People should listen to Forrest Gump. One of my favorite lines from that film comes when Forrest says Im not a smart man but I know what love is. Even Forrest was happy and knew how to love, something the intelligent characters in this film should learn. Character-driven, dialogue-friendly and heavy on the family dysfunction, the independently made Smart People is enjoyably witty and superbly acted, though not always on target with its dispirited tone and unhappy relationships.
Smart People concerns Pompous Pittsburgh Professor (say that five times real fast) Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), who teaches English at the local university and is a widower with two kids: the brilliantly intelligent sardonic teen Vanessa (Ellen Page) and his college-age secret poetry-writing dude James (Ashton Holmes). When Lawrence s car is towed and he retrieves some stuff from his car, he has a freak accident and suffers a concussion, rendering him unable to drive.
Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), the pretty ER doctor who treats him, also happens to be a former student of his. In the meantime, Lawrence s loser and adopted brother Chuck ( Thomas Haden Church ) shows up short on cash, willing to be his brothers chauffer in exchange for a place to crash. Chuck rocks the boat and Lawrence has to manage him and reconnect with the rest of his family while trying to forge a new relationship with Janet, forcing him to become a better man that he once was.
Smart People channels family dysfunction with some different comic observations than recent movies The Savages and Margot at the Wedding did. Directed by commercial TV director Noam Murro and penned by his writing partner Mark Poirer, Smart People is more lighthearted than Savages or Margot though lacking in originality and frustratingly downbeat. With that in mind, youll remember Smart People most for its quick wit and intelligent performances that raise it above its gloominess.
Dennis Quaid gives a refreshingly different performance as the dishelved, paunchy and arrogant English professor in love with himself; and Page and Haden Church, who gladly steal each scene theyre in, and their scenes together are even better (You should make your bed, it sets the tone for your day, she says. Maybe I dont want to set a tone, he replies). The downside is these two have played these characters before Page with Juno and Haden Church in Sideways and play them so well they could become typecast.
Both have Smart Peoples funniest scenes and lines. The deeply cynical and sarcastic Page, in a role thats easily Junos smarter, anal retentive sister, has a fast, sharp wit. How does it feel to be stupid? she drunkenly says to one girl (the other girls response is also witty: How does it feel to eat alone everyday?). The underachieving Chuck says to Lawrence : You spend $50 on dinner, thats grounds for intercourse. Chuck may be the loser, but hes really the smartest one in the family. (A fact acknowledged by Quaids character more than once in the film.)
Smart Peoples problematic character is the attractively uptight, bland one played by Sarah Jessica Parker. With little wit and whiny attitude, Parkers Janet sticks out like a sore thumb. She and Quaid have little, if any, chemistry at all, their lackluster romantic subplot ringing false and leading to an improbable, unsatisfying ending (and remarkably upbeat end credits). Its all unfortunate for the likable Parker, and to quote Rocky Horror Picture Show: Dammit, Janet.
In another foolish move, Smart People also reduces the talented, still beautiful Christine Lahti to a few lines and nary a few minutes of screen time as Lawrence s secretary. Her TV show Chicago Hope is sorely missed and leaves me wondering that Lawrence s relationship with her wouldve been more interesting than the shallow Janet.
Smart People is recommended for anyone who enjoys smart performances, witty dialogue and its message that a dysfunctional family is still family. Quaid is good, but Page and Haden Church walk off with the movie. In spite of its dreary tone, Smart People still made me laugh, something even Forrest Gump would approve of.
Rating: 3,5 out of 4