Saturday, August 23, 2008

Smart People

Director: Noam Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Hayden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

It’s funny how our perceptions of certain actors can influence how we watch a film. Had Ellen Page not given her Oscar nominated performance as the sarcastic, wisecracking pregnant title character in Juno before Smart People was released no one probably would have thought twice about her work in it. But because she did make that previous film and garnered too much publicity for it, many will go into this one wanting to rip her apart. If you’re one of them you’re going to have a field day because her role is much larger than even the trailer indicated.

Then we have Dennis Quaid playing a depressed, burnt-out college professor. Had another actor been cast we also wouldn’t have cared, but because it’s Quaid (who has a longstanding reputation for playing man’s men) we pay attention. I mention all this because the cast is the best thing Smart People has going for it. The title is supposed to be ironic. I think. These people really believe they’re smart but in reality they’re not. That same description could apply to the film itself.

Despite some fascinating (if not all necessarily good) performances when the movie ended I wondered what the point of it was. I was never bored and couldn’t stop watching but found it was an ordeal spending time with these unlikable, irritating people. I also question the benefits of releasing another one of these low-budget indie “human comedies” that expect us to break out in a fit of giggles over issues like incest and repressed homosexuality…then have a good cry.
I really wanted to like this (and came close) but the tone felt way off and when I compiled a mental checklist I realized it failed in its primary goal of getting me to care what happens to the characters. I just couldn’t root for them and all their various emotional transformations rang false. Part of the problem is that everything is painted in such broad strokes that these people don’t feel real and instead came off as a screenwriter’s somewhat narrow vision of what “real” is supposed to be. As a result he film becomes a parody of what it’s trying to be and ends up being almost as arrogant and condescending as it’s protagonist.

To say that Carnegie Mellon University English Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is full of himself is like calling the sky blue or proclaiming the sun will rise tomorrow morning. A recent widower, he hides his pain and depression with sarcastic remarks and a side helping of witty insults. He’s one of those jerks who you actually have to think how to get along with and worry the next word you speak might set him off. He doesn’t care who his students are (even giving them name tags so he doesn’t have to) and is justifiably despised by his co-workers. Even his half-hearted desire to be head of the English department stems from massive egotism and a desperate need for attention rather than any kind of motivation to improve the academic program.

The real victim of Lawrence’s selfish behavior is his lonely, over-achieving daughter, Vanessa (Page) who is very much a chip off the old block and emulates his obnoxious, arrogant behavior. His college-age son James (Ashton Holmes) was smarter and just escaped into his own world, avoiding the situation entirely. On top of Lawrence failing miserably to find a publisher for his latest book, his adopted slacker brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) moves in and must act as his makeshift chauffer when he suffers an unfortunate head injury trying to retrieve his towed car. The accident causes an introduction to Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) a former student he doesn’t remember who used to have a crush on him. They begin dating. And so begins the redemption of Lawrence Wetherhold.

If you had told me going in that amongst these world-class Oscar nominated actors, Sarah Jessica Parker would deliver the best performance in the film I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s not that everyone else does a bad job per se, just that Mark Poirier’s familiar script turns them into indie film caricatures and there’s only so much they can do to overcome it. The worst of which is Page’s Vanessa. Anyone who hated the character of Juno MacGuff better brace themselves. Vanessa is just like her except for the fact that she’s mean, nasty and completely unlikable. Why? Because she’s a REPUBLICAN and this is Hollywood. The portrait of Ronald Reagan on her wall kind of gave it away, as did her talking about Dick Cheney in glowing terms. Her political beliefs are completely irrelevant to the family pain she’s going through which is why it feels like a cheap shot that it was thrown in there. She’s also carries an S.A.T. study guide around with her in case we don’t quite get the message that she’s an overachiever.

It's worth mentioning there’s a development with Vanessa at the midway point that’s just disgusting. It was creepy, awkward and unnecessary. I wanted to throw up. I was a fan of Page’s work in Juno and thought she deserved all the praise and recognition she received so if I found her irritating in this I can only imagine what everyone else will think. I hate to agree with her detractors because she is a big talent, but unless she starts finding some different, more challenging roles other than the “wise well beyond her years” sarcastic teen, her career will start to fizzle out.Thomas Hayden Church does what he can with the slacker brother role and had another actor been cast it could have been a disaster. It’s one-dimensional part but Church brings some real dimension to it.

The chief selling point of the film is the emerging relationship between Quaid and Parker’s characters and the best thing I can say is that the two have great chemistry and I wanted to see them in a movie more deserving of it. It’s just impossible to believe that anyone could stand to be in the same room with a narcissistic emotional cripple like Lawrence much less be involved in some kind of meaningful relationship with him. At first she can't but then, of course, she begins to warm up to the idea. I didn't. Despite the best efforts of the actors his transformation was just too much of a stretch for me to buy in the context it was presented. That Quaid and Parker even come within a striking distance of pulling it off proves how much more they could have done with a stronger script. Parker’s Janet is the only character in the film who seems like a normal, grounded human being and seems so intelligent that I was almost willing to go along with her idea that this relationship could possibly work. Parker at least made me care what happened to that character and I probably would have rather watched a film about her.

This is a huge departure for Dennis Quaid and despite being miscast he mostly does a decent job, but I found myself distracted by some of the physical choices he made. During the film I found myself asking: "Why is he walking like that?" Supposedly, Quaid traveled to college campuses to study the professors but what purpose does it serve to imitate how they walk? Unaware that college professors are some strange species that walk differently than humans, I found myself concentrating on his duck-like shuffle throughout the film. He also has a middle-aged paunch, a shaggy beard and his head wanders all over the place while talking.

Rather than worrying how professors look it would have made more sense to inhabit how they act. Quaid does do that well, which is why I found the other things so distracting. He’s an underrated actor and it was great to see him in a different role like this but everything didn’t need to go so over-the-top. I wish director Noam Murro trusted him more to tell him the physical stuff wasn’t necessary and added little to the character. Michael Douglas’ work in 2000’s Wonder Boys is a good example of more restrained work in a very similar role.
I counted about four times the movie could have come to an end but kept going. That’s scary when you consider it’s only an hour and a half long, which I can’t believe because it sure felt a whole lot longer. It was one manufactured crisis after another with these people set to one of those pretentious indie soundtracks where every song sounds like it comes from a guy who’s strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop. I love movies set in academia and ones featuring dysfunctional families so with this cast you’d figure this would be a slam dunk for me. Instead, it misses its mark by trekking through familiar territory with nothing new to say. It attempts to make up for it by trying too hard. Smart People is just a little too smart for its own good.


JD said...

Excellent and more down to earth review than I wrote of the film.
I guess I really cared about the brothers by the end of the film.
I really thought that Thomas Haden Church and Dennis Quaid worked very well off each other.

Great review, my friend.

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