Smart People

 

Smart People

Film review by: Witney Seibold

 

 

            The intended conceit of Noam Murro’s “Smart People” is that no matter how intelligent and hoity-toity you are, your emotional life may still be a shambles. In execution, however, the question on the audience’s mind may be close to “why are these so-called smart people so stupid?” No, I don’t mean that they do dumb things because of their emotional immaturity. I mean they do stupid things because they are hapless characters trapped in a senseless and unintelligent movie.

 

            What sets great actions films apart from bad ones is that the great ones find a plausible reason to have the big explosion. The bad ones skip straight to the explosion, skipping any semblance of real plausibility. What sets great “quirky” indie dramadies apart from the mediocre ones is that the great ones find a way to have emotional climaxes that reveal the deep inner workings of their charmingly flawed characters. The mediocre ones skip straight to the big emotional “reveal” and “moment” without any plausible setup. “Smart People” falls frustratingly into the latter category. It is a film without buildup, with no reasons for the characters’ emotional arcs, other than to give us dramatic climaxes. It is a film with no undressing, and an endless string of money shots.

 

            “Smart People” tells the story of the Wetherhold family. Lawrence (Dennis Quaid) is a misanthropic widower, and exactly the kind of professor you don’t get. Vanessa (a miscast Ellen Page) is a squeaky-clean, young-Republican child prodigy who is secretly trying to get away from home. James (Ashton Holmes) is a libidinous college boy who is intentionally keeping things from his family. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence’s adopted brother, is the only one who does not know his own IQ, is perpetually out of a job, and, predictably, is the family’s free spirit.

 

            When Lawrence suffers a mild stroke, he is forbidden to drive, and Chuck is begrudgingly welcomed into the household as a chauffeur and choreman. And what happens (in indie movies) when a misanthrope is put in close quarters with a free spirit? Faster than you can say “Box of Moonlight,” Lawrence begins mutating in a lovable teddy-bear type who talks to his kids, pays more attention to his students, consideres forgetting his dead wife, and begins having a deeper emotional appreciation for the stuffy poetry he so eloquently pontificates upon. Snore. Also in this movie is Sarah Jessica Parker as an ex-student of Lawrence’s who, for reasons unknown, begins to have a cautious affair with the man. Parker is a fine actress in the right situations (I loved her in “Mars Attacks!”), but here is such an unappealing woman that I wanted to strangle her. She’s supposed to act as Lawrence’s emotional anchor, but comes across as primarily bitchy and whiny.

 

            In addition, the film’s tone is distressingly downbeat. I don’t demand that all my films be happy, but when a film leads you toward joyous (if not predictable) reveals, it’s feels like a jerk-around if it pulls the rug out from under you.

 

            In fact, most of the characters in this film are pretty insufferable. Ellen Page plays her usual snarkiness when buttoned-down would have worked better. Quaid plays his misanthrope so well, it’s hard to see why anyone, including audiences, would like him. And Church, what with his folksy, home-spun platitudes, is only one bold casting choice away from having been the magical negro. It would have been nice for a movie called “Smart People” to have been, well, smart.

 

 

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Published in: on June 6, 2008 at 1:29 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This may be your best article I have read…


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