Miramax // 2008 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // August 18th, 2008
Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.
Capitalizing on Juno's success, Smart People is a comedy/drama that featured a very Ellen Page-centric marketing campaign, despite Dennis Quaid playing the lead. The film received middling box office turns, but may discover a larger audience in the more intimate home theater market.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid, Innerspace) is an English professor at prestigious Carnegie Mellon University. He's also an ass. He talks down to his students, alienates colleagues and family members, and seems unable to discuss anything outside his narrow, esoteric field. After suffering an injury while climbing a fence, Lawrence begins reconsidering his relationships with those previously kept at arms-length.
His ne'er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways) suddenly becomes indispensable as Lawrence's chauffer and all-around family sage. Lawrence's relationship with his emotionally distant son, James (Ashton Holmes, A History of Violence), comes to a confrontational head. His overachieving daughter Vanessa (Page) doesn't seem to like the new Lawrence, especially his budding romance with a comely doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City), who also happens to be a former student.
I so wanted to like Smart People. I come from a family of academics. I work in academia myself. A movie featuring the trials and tribulations of an academic family seemed right up my alley. With the invaluable Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page in supporting roles, this was a can't miss, right?
Wrong. Smart People misses, despite some sizable assets. It's got a great tone, with bits of acerbic comedy perfectly setting up stark dramatic sequences, and it's got a great location, with the environs of suburban Pittsburgh and the campus of Carnegie Mellon creating a picturesque academic setting. However, while the acting is solid for the most part, Quaid sabotages the entire film with his overly cantankerous performance as the professor who is not so much nutty as he is just an asshole.
To be fair, much of the blame for this goes to the script. I understand that Lawrence is supposed to be going through a transition, from crotchety to caring, over the length of the movie -- not unlike the transformation of Jack's Nicholson's Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. However, Melvin, through a crank, is entertaining and engaging; Lawrence is just a pedantic blowhard who seems mostly unredeemable, and is incredibly boring.
I don't understand why I would care about him. He is incredibly self-involved, rude, and -- perhaps worst of all -- humorless. Even after the accident, he still seems full of contempt and intolerance for those he deems less intelligent than himself. Perhaps Quaid's performance could have ameliorated some of these base personality traits, but instead he seems to only exaggerate them. He does this by, first, growing a beard, and, second, playing Lawrence as if his entire body was clenched like a fist and he had been constipated for the past several months. The cumulative effect is that not only does Lawrence have an unpleasant personality, he is also unpleasant to look at.
Thankfully, the supporting characters in Smart People were not nearly as insufferable. Janet is a flat character, which leaves her attraction for Lawrence inexplicable. James is fueled by anger for his father; while this anger seems justified, the character isn't given enough screen time to exhibit any other dimensions to his character. Chuck and Vanessa, however, are far more interesting and engaging characters than any other in the movie -- though of course this may be because both seem to be variations of characters in other movies.
Chuck -- reminiscent of Jack in Sideways -- is laid-back, irresponsible, and droll. As such, he provides a necessary light touch in the film; in fact, Church's injection of levity has a way of making the rest of the film seem overly humorless by comparison. Vanessa is also a strong character, though Page's heavy use of sass and attitude make her character almost seem like an improv class assignment: "Imagine Juno as a young Republican and...go!"
That said, these two characters provide the film with its most memorable and enjoyable moments. It's tempting to suggest that Smart People should have focused entirely on them, but their relationship takes an unusual turn about halfway through the film that seemed odd, unrealistic, and sapped the energy out of the characters.
Smart People is far from a fiasco, and the script evinces an intelligence and humor that is unfortunately wasted on an uninspiring story and characters that are largely unengaging. It seems like the script was only a few more drafts away from being ready. Maybe I am being particularly harsh because I had high expectations, but sometimes it is more rankling to see a movie that fails to realize its potential than a movie that is simply a mess.
Miramax has done an admirable job putting together the DVD, especially considering Smart People's mediocre box office. The movie doesn't offer much in the way of visuals or audio, but the sights and sounds of suburban Pittsburgh are clean and clear. There are nine deleted scenes, though none of these are particularly interesting or adds any insight to the film. The making-of featurette, "The Smartest People," is only 16 minutes long, but is surprisingly more informative and interesting than the listless commentary from director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier.
There is a fair amount of intelligence and humor on display here, but it all adds up to an unsatisfying whole. This is largely due to an unlikable protagonist, who is not only an unpleasant individual but also uninteresting. Not only did I not want anything good to happen to him, I also didn't really care.
Guilty of propagating the stereotype of academics as arrogant, pedantic, and unfashionable. Isn't that trope a little tired by now?
Review content copyright © 2008 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Noam Murro and Writer Mark Jude Poirier
* Deleted Scenes
* "The Smartest People" Making-of Featurette
* Official Site