Saturday, March 13, 2010

Archive: 'Smart People'

Movie Review
Smart People (2008)

"Smart People" is like the little sister of similar but better movies like "Sideways," "The Savages," "The Squid and the Whale," and "Little Miss Sunshine," all dealing with some sort of family dysfunction. Written by Mark Poirier and directed by Noam Murro, this comedic drama feels a lot like something we've already seen before. Numerous times, in fact. And yet while it brings nothing new to the table, the movie is persistently enjoyable largely thanks to the sharp characters and acting. It's certainly nothing that begs to be seen, but it's still trim, mildly amusing, and sometimes surprisingly intelligent. Like the characters in the movie, the filmmakers are smart people but made some dumb choices.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a tired and widowed university professor who's a cynic and a snob. He uses his intelligence against his students rather than to enrich them. He's a bitter widower who finds himself drifting through life behind a scruffy beard of depression. The university is scattered with past students he's had, all who he should probably remember but doesn't. This character is in essence what Philip Seymour Hoffman already did in "The Savages" and what Jeff Daniels did in "The Squid and the Whale." But here is the same role again, this time with Dennis Quaid taking a shot at it. He does an admirable job, though, keeping the correct balance of bite and warmth in his character.

Lawrence has a sharp-tongued 17-year-old daughter named Vanessa (Ellen Page) who's super smart, analytical, but emotionally detached and lacking any friends. She's precisely the sort of teenage daughter that such a cynical professor father would have. And she's such a wisecrack that she could only be played by Ellen Page. Lawrence also has an adopted brother named Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) who comes to stay with him and his family after an incident that prevents him from being able to drive. Chuck is Lawrence's unreliable chauffeur, but more importantly, while Lawrence is away at work, there is a relationship that evolves between Chuck and Vanessa. Keep your eye on these two secondary characters because Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page absolutely steal the show with their scenes together. Chuck's relationship with Lawrence feels like a rehash of "Sideways," but his connection with Vanessa feels fresh with their banter full of witty dialogue and wry humor. Haden Church brings a sense of clumsy grace to his character while Page proves that her success with "Juno" was no fluke.

While being admitted to the hospital because of his accident, Lawrence meets, or rather, gets reintroduced to a former student of his named Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker). After an inititial meeting, they almost immediately begin dating. And here's where the movie's biggest issue comes into play. The movie obviously wants its focus to be on the blooming relationship between Lawrence and Janet, and yet, their situation is rushed and uninteresting and turns into a conventional romantic comedy. And although they're both good actors, there is little chemistry between Jessica Parker and Quaid, which is why the focus immediately shifts away from these leads. But even so, the uneven screenplay still provides enough room for the entire worthy ensemble cast to show their stuff.

It's funny that not only do big Hollywood productions have their set formula but now so do indie comedies. Like most other small character studies, this one never tries to do too much. Yet, by the end of this equally small movie, there's still that sense of perhaps more could've been explored. But even as "Smart People" doesn't exactly nail the level of effortless poignancy that all those other similar movies do, it's still pleasing and engaging. It starts off shaky, gets better around its middle point, and then sinks back into playing it safe, wrapping everything up just a little too neatly in the end, especially during the credits. It's a smart movie that could've been just a bit smarter, but even in spite of that, I have to say it grew on me.

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