Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier
Producers: Bridget Johnson, Michael Costigan, Michael London
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
U.S.A., 2007, 93 min.
*Smart People is the darkly comic story of Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed, acerbic, and self-absorbed literature professor who has alienated his son and turned his daughter into an overachieving, friendless teen. He falls for Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), one of his former students; at the same time, his ne’er-do-well brother (played by Thomas Haden Church) unexpectedly shows up at his door, low on cash and needing a place to stay. Suddenly, Lawrence's well-thought-out, though not well-managed, life comes crashing down on him. All the intelligence in the world can’t unstick his life.
A seasoned commercial director, Noam Murro is no stranger behind a camera, but Smart People surely signals the beginning of an accomplished new career in feature filmmaking. The script by Mark Jude Poirier is razor sharp, and the obvious rapport among the ensemble cast members makes for a healthy dose of well-conceived humor. Mixing comedy genres, including just a hint of modern slapstick, Murro proves he has an assured grasp on what any good adult comedy needs—an expert balance of pace and pathos. Smart People traces the amusing series of events that trigger, in one man, the need to change and reconnect with his family before he can take the first step forward.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
Smart People is disappointingly cold and intellectual, though I may be feeling this way because I expected too much. I had read reviews and hear that this film was one of the better films in the festival this year. So I trucked on out 100 miles to Ogden, Utah for the last festival screening of Smart People. It screened in this enormous old movie house which even had a guy playing a piano at the front of the house. I wish the film had managed to connect with the excited, mostly local audience. Since the film is about the inability of certain intellectuals to connect emotionally, I think the film itself fell into the same trap as its characters. There are some great performances, especially by Thomas Haden Church as ‘Chuck’. I think part of the film’s problem lies in its inability to find a satisfying conclusion.
The plot is pretty cut and dry; it is about Dennis Quaid’s character, Lawrence, and his journey to discover how to care for a woman again after the death of his wife. I found it hard to believe that Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Janet, would put up with Lawrence’s attitude and insecurities. He is a much older man and for the most part, a complete jerk towards Janet. I guess I am just supposed to accept their relationship for the movie to work, but I expected more plot intelligence from a movie called Smart People. Lawrence’s softening attitude at the end of the film comes about far too quickly. I like the idea that Lawrence is starting to care more about his students, but there didn’t seem to be a catalyst that would result in such a wild behavior change. I normally love Quaid’s performances, but here he felt too gruff and stereotypically ‘grumpy professor’.
As if Sideways wasn’t enough proof, Thomas Haden Church is an extremely gifted and natural comedian. There is this low-key rugged charm he exudes, tempered by a sharp wit. Every scene with him works. He exists in this film to be the ‘crazy’ brother who comes into the household to ‘shake things up’. Church breathes new life into that stereotypical role and makes one wish he would be in more films that play to his talents. At first, I didn’t like Ellen Page’s portrayal of the closeted, brilliant ‘Vanessa’. The role reminded me too strongly of Page’s other recent roles: the strong, smart, sarcastic girl way too mature for her age. But she really won me over with some of her acting choices. Vanessa has this great scene with her dad, Lawrence, outside the high school gym. Vanessa is trying to be an adult with her dad, but she can’t stop her leg from bouncing up and down like a little kid. As a chronic leg shaker myself, I loved seeing that tender detail. Page was also very good in some of her later scenes with her father, trying to articulate her feelings about Janet replacing her mother. And Vanessa’s last scene, when she gives a little half-smile to her father, the first step in accepting the death of her mother, is a wonderful completion of her character’s arc.I am writing about all these emotional moments, but they really don’t hit the audience in the gut like they are supposed to, the emotional moments are much too detached. Maybe it’s a misuse of music or a conscious choice not to go ‘big’ with the drama, but I really felt like I needed to see some huge emotional catharsis for these closeted characters. Smart People is a decent film about a disconnected family learning how to feel again. There are some great performances and scenes, but the parts don’t add up to the whole film that Smart People deserves to be.