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ReelViews Movie Review - Smart People
by James Berardinelli
Big Hollywood productions aren't the only ones to rely on formula. For his feature debut, director Noam Murro has taken the safe route of enlisting the "redemption of the misanthrope" narrative. Everything one expects from such a tale is found here: the dislikeable protagonist who is gradually humanized over the course of the story, the love interest who shows him the path to salvation, and the quirky supporting characters who provide color and flavor. What is missing, however, is a reason for a viewer to become invested in anyone living within Smart People's universe. To avoid sentimentality, Murro keeps the audience at arm's length, but there's not anything sufficiently interesting about his characters to enable them to leap off the screen.
Dennis Quaid plays Smart People's resident pompous ass, Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold. Lawrence is a widower who shares his house with his 17-year old daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page). His older son, James (Ashton Holmes), occasionally drops by and his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), has just moved in for an extended stay. Lawrence is intelligent, arrogant, and generally impossible to be around. His fortunes take a turn for the worse when he suffers a brain injury in a fall and is not allowed to drive for six months. Chuck agrees to be his chauffeur but he is notoriously unreliable, often leaving Lawrence stranded. One evening, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), the doctor who attended Lawrence in the E.R., sees him standing in the cold and offers him a lift. This leads to a disastrous first date and a somewhat more satisfying second one, but Lawrence's self-absorbed personality keeps getting in the way.
The main problem with Smart People is that it never breaks new ground. This is territory we have seen tilled to better effect by more perceptive motion pictures. The only one with a full character arc is Lawrence and we know exactly where he's going because we've seen this before. After all, can a movie be satisfying if the curmudgeon doesn't become a loving, caring individual? The supporting characters have frustratingly incomplete storylines, with many of their mini-happy endings feeling more forced than organic. On the other hand, screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier shows a deft hand for dialogue. One might expect intelligent lines to be spoken by Smart People and, in general, he does not disappoint. Taken out of context, individual scenes work. However, when the entire thing is put together, it is found lacking.
This is Dennis Quaid's vehicle, but Ellen Page will get more attention because of the commercial and critical success of Juno. Page plays a female version of Alex P. Keaton (the Michael J. Fox character in Family Ties): whip-smart, emotionally retarded, and a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans. Page is fine in the role but there's not enough depth to Vanessa to allow her to really shine. As for Quaid, he does what the part demands, creating a detestable personality to start who gradually softens as the story unfolds. It's not challenging work, but Quaid approaches it in a workmanlike fashion. Sarah Jessica Parker is surprisingly gentle as his underdeveloped love interest, and Tomas Haden Church provides a little low-key humor.
Like most simple indie character dramas, this one doesn't try to do too much. Still, there's a sense that it could have offered a more full platter had the scope been widened to better flesh out the secondary characters. Vanessa in particular has potential but the movie is content to keep her as a skeletal creation orbiting Lawrence's star. For Smart People to work, the viewer has to care about Lawrence in a meaningful fashion and the filmmakers don't get us to the point where his transformation provides us with an emotional experience. Those who find comfort in competently made but overly familiar stories may enjoy what Smart People have to offer. For me, it was too thin to truly satisfy.