Miramax // 2008 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // August 12th, 2008
Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.
Smart People is one of 2008's little surprises. The film wasn't exactly a hit commercially or critically, with many reviewers brushing it off as a quirky indie flick that tries too hard to be funny and touching in equal doses. I must respectfully disagree, stipulating that the film works because of the fully-developed characters and a tendency to avoid clichéd sappiness. Miramax finally gives this little gem the regular DVD and Blu-ray treatment.
Emotionally repressed English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid, Vantage Point) has been trapped in a brittle shell, ever since his wife died years ago. As a result, his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page, Juno) has grown up too fast; acting, talking, and dressing like someone twice her age. She's also a hardcore conservative and devoted young Republican who is deaf and dumb when it comes to Liberalism. Her screwed-up uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways) is the complete opposite; he drinks, smokes weed, and is financially dependent upon Lawrence.
The story kicks into high gear when Wetherhold ends up in the hospital. His doctor is Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex And The City), a former student who used to have a major crush on him. Despite his asshole nature, she boldly agrees to date him, which opens his eyes to the world and everyone around him, particularly his friendless daughter.
I've met many people in my life who think they are so smart they consider themselves uber-superior. They think the world revolves around them, because they refuse to lose arguments. They aren't stupid, just self-absorbed and narcissistic when it comes to thought. A perfect example comes halfway through Smart People when a drunken Vanessa approaches three young girls in a bar and asks, "Why are you so stupid?" The leader responds with "What's it like sitting alone at lunch, everyday?" Truth is, you could be the smartest person in the world, and the world doesn't give a shit.
Watching Smart People reminded me of all those individuals, making it click as a comedy while also scoring on a dramatic level. The film marks the directorial debut of Noam Murro. Also emerging is first-time screenwriter Mark Poirer, who succeeds in making his characters three-dimensional and always interesting. His humor is quirky and tone offbeat, resulting in an insightful slice-of-life story which (thankfully) doesn't overstay its welcome. Murro's direction is tender and delicate, giving each of the leads equal time to expand and mature. Although Church threatens to steal every moment, Murro (wisely) doesn't allow him too, knowing full well that Quaid, Page, and Parker are certainly not slouches.
None of these characters are unrealistic or simplistically drawn. Prof. Wetherhold eerily resembles my own father (an English teacher for 20 years...and too smart for his own good) in terms of attitude. I loved his little eccentricities, such as feeling nausea if he sits in the passenger side of a car, or loving literature so much he forgets to show it in front of his students. However, he's also a close-minded prick. It's not so much due to the widower funk he's in, but rather because he thinks he should be the head of the English department, even when his fellow professors dislike him. In many ways, Janet is just as emotionally stuck as Wetherhold. But her happiness is secure, and when it begins to rub off on him, he wakes up from his hibernation.
As for Vanessa, she's so hell-bent on becoming the next Ann Coulter or Laura Ingraham she loses sight of her own needs and desires. She's the type of person you'd expect to be bitching all day on the Free Republic while also being exceptionally lonely, without anyone in the world to really talk to, including her own father. It's not until Chuck moves in that she finally finds someone to improve her social skills and have fun once in awhile. All these characters intertwine organically, building to little moments of joy, profundity, and satisfaction.
The lead actors all give winning performances. The chemistry between Quaid and Parker and the interactions between Page and Church are juicy and occasionally hilarious. Quaid has never been better, making one forget all the box office cool he solidified in such '80s films as Innerspace and The Big Easy. A pre-Juno Page scores with another acid-tongued teenager, while Parker (the only completely sane one in the bunch) sheds her Carrie Bradshaw image with a sweet and sincere performance guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows.
Miramax's Blu-ray treatment of Smart People is rock-solid both visually and sonically. The 2.40:1 non-anamorphic print is offered in a 1080p / VC-1 encode, and the results are quite flawless, despite its low-budget roots. Colors are superbly saturated, flesh tones are fantastic, and no grain or anomalies were detected at all. Two audio tracks are provided: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 5.1 uncompressed, with the latter recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit. Both are awesome tracks, and give full respect to Nuno Bettencourt's catchy score. Subtitles are provided in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Too bad the supplemental features can't measure up the outstanding technical goodies. The audio commentary from director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier is dull, lifeless, and almost completely devoid of behind-the-scenes insight. I understand this is the first commentary for both, but I'm sure they could have said much more than just how great Pittsburgh was and what it was like casting/working with the actors. Also included are a palatable featurette with cast/crew interviews, some bloopers, and deleted scenes. Some are amusing, but all lack punch and bite.
As for the film itself, I just have one quibble, and it regards the closing moments. Even with all the great characters and dialogue, Poirier (for some reason) decided to take the easy way out by giving solutions to his characters' problems a bit too early and easily. As a result, the final ten minutes feel more convenient than copasetic. The conclusion is still satisfying, although it could have been -- -and should have been -- -much better.
Smart People is engaging and hard to resist, thanks to the top cast, spirited direction, and delicious writing. Highly recommended!
The film is found guilty for being one of the smartest movies of 2008. Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Noam Murro & Mark Jude Poirer
* Deleted Scenes
* "Not So Smart": Bloopers & Outtakes
* "The Smartest People": Interviews