Come for the popular Ellen Page and the punchy Sarah Jessica Parker, but stay for the scene-stealing Dennis Quaid.|
by S. James Snyder, published on April 11, 2008
For fans of last year's hit romantic comedy "Juno," starring Ms. Page, and those of the TV series "Sex and the City," the big-screen version of which makes its premiere May 30, "Smart People" is sure to be this weekend's hot pick. But these two accomplished actresses are upstaged by a gruff and grizzly Mr. Quaid, an actor best known as the dignified everyman or the by-the-book cop. In "Smart People," Mr. Quaid plays a snob slowly coming to grips with the fact that he's a wretched person.
It's a subtle but important twist to the familiar dysfunctional family routine. Whether we're talking about "Little Miss Sunshine," "Napoleon Dynamite," or "The Royal Tenenbaums," audiences have been inundated in recent years by comedies that do little else but revel in the awkwardness of the outcast. Yet in "Smart People," through both the empathetic eyes of freshman director Noam Murro and the self-deprecating script penned by Mark Poirier, we meet characters who are not quite content with their marginalization. It's not a story of defiance, but of reinvention.
That said, it's rather obvious from the very first scene that a major dose of reinvention is badly needed. Lawrence (Mr. Quaid) is a college professor who's bored with his job, but also apparently disgusted by just about every person with whom he's forced to interact. When a student shows up a few minutes before five in the afternoon, trying to catch the professor during his office hours, Lawrence turns the hands of the clock to 5:05 and tells the student that he's too late. When Lawrence finds it difficult to sell his latest book a diatribe that claims the academic community has misinterpreted any number of classics, and which is eventually titled "You Can't Read" to publishing houses, he can't understand why anyone would think that it won't sell.
That's in large part because his teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), thinks it's a masterpiece. Vanessa is an arrogant, judgmental prima donna who makes fewer friends at school than she does at weekly Young Republicans meetings, and who has clearly coped with her mother's death by opting to play the part of apron-wearing homemaker. She is very much daddy's girl which is to say, a miserable mess.
Ms. Parker and Thomas Haden Church, as Lawrence's unemployed, pot-smoking brother, are the instigators of change the liberal, expressive rabble-rousers who throw Lawrence and Vanessa's emotionless tedium into disarray. Ms. Parker plays Janet, a doctor who treats Lawrence at the hospital one evening and who used to have a crush on the professor when she was one of his students. Mr. Church plays Chuck, who arrives at the house unexpectedly in part to help Lawrence with his medical problems, but mostly because he has nothing else going on and digs the idea of not paying rent.
More than just awkward or antisocial, Lawrence and Vanessa are the fools of their own elitist reality, and the opening half of "Smart People" is a rather shrewd deconstruction of the upper crust. Things reach an apex when Lawrence, still mourning the death of his wife years ago, takes Janet out on a date. As she patiently smiles and listens, Lawrence sets out to "impress" her by spouting detailed analyses of literary movements. As the minutes tick by and the glasses of wine evaporate, Lawrence's condescension becomes stifling. Janet rightly stands up and throws his theses back in his face.
Sadly, though, scenes like these in which the rug is pulled from beneath the feet of Lawrence or Vanessa, and the characters are forced to react and evolve are too few and far between. Mr. Murro has layered the story in musical interludes (all bland pop tunes that someone like Lawrence would scoff at), but while the early music montages give us time to process the depths of the shallowness on display, the later ones are used almost in lieu of acting or dialogue. Emotions flare and then subside, things seem lost and then hope is restored, and it's all thanks to the emo tune playing in the background.
The problem is that there's no arc. If "Smart People" were a book being taught in his class, Lawrence might deride it for lacking a fully realized second act, for rushing from conflict to climax and bypassing real development. Mr. Quaid is the one who rages most effectively against this streamlining. Until the very end, he is cantankerous and cold, fighting diligently to crack the façade of literary essays and elbow patches to locate whatever human being might still be alive within.
Ms. Page and Ms. Parker have their moments the kitchen-cleaning elitist learning that she does not have all the answers, and the offended nurse realizing that she may have just as many flaws as the professor but it's Mr. Quaid who rises above caricature. Something about Lawrence is broken deep down, and if "Smart People" wasn't so busy looking for a chuckle, it could be a more compelling psychological drama about an insecure man who knows it all, but still doesn't have a clue.