April 13, 2008

Movie Review: Smart People

I wasn't sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Smart People. Based on the trailers I was hoping for a smartly written tale of characters who are intelligent, but still have a lot to learn. Yes, that sounds good, but is not entirely accurate, I think I was more interested in seeing Ellen Page in her first outing since her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno. Considering my hopes for the film, I am sad to report that I am quite disappointed in the film's aftermath. It is an indie character study that never really takes off, seemingly more content to move in fits and spurts. I am reminded of Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), however this is more of an attempt at style mimicry than taking inspiration.

Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. The character is seriously flawed in that while he is definitely book smart, but he is also self-centered, elitist, and not terribly good at interacting with others (his self-centered pomposity keeps getting in the way). He is a widower who shares his home with his over-achieving, Alex P. Keaton by way of Juno MacGuff daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). His son, James (Ashton Holmes), is attending Carnegie Mellon and stops in occasionally. Then there is Lawrence's adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a guy who makes a living on a variety of scams and always shows up when he is low on cash, and this is one of those times.

With Lawrence as the central character, we need to have that triggering event that brings them together and sets Lawrence on his quest towards being a more lovable, nice character. That event comes in the form of our despicable curmudgeon hopping a fence to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car, falling on his head, and suffering a seizure. This means that he will not be able to drive, legally, for six months. It's a good thing that Chuck is around to become is chauffeur! Anyway, since he cannot drive, he is forced to spend more time with those whom he would rather not or takes for granted.

His legal inability to drive, combined with the unreliable Chuck, Lawrence accepts a ride home from Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), the ER doctor who treated his head injury. This ride leads to an awkward date, and then an on/off relationship between the two.

While Lawrence's story is the central thread, it is not the only story, despite all efforts to convince you otherwise. There is the more interesting, yet underdeveloped story of Chuck and Vanessa. The two have some distinct chemistry, which Vanessa misconstrues as something that it is not. She is locked in on studying and getting ahead at the expense of having fun like normal teenagers. Sadly, their story is never developed as fully as I would have liked. Secondly is the story of James' literary aspirations, which his father never took the time to notice. This one is even less developed than Vanessa and Chuck's.

Sitting there, watching so many scenes just whither on the vine, it felt like the ninety-five minute movie was more like two hours. Many scenes just tail off as the acoustic guitar-driven score continuously reminds you this is an indie film.

I cannot say that I liked this film. It just dragged on and the character development, of a character drama no less, just did not seem to be going anywhere fast. Anytime a character showed the signs of going anywhere, the scene ended and we went somewhere else. In this fact, I was reminded of that awful film White Noise, anytime Michael Keaton had a moment to expand on his character there was an edit.

The fault lies at the feet of the writing and directing team of Mark Poirier and Noam Murro. The screenplay wants so desperately to sound smart, however it comes off as self-importance masquerading as intelligence, which is hardly the same thing. This combined with direction that lacks any sort of style and cuts away too soon, you get a film that wants to appear insightful but just falls flat.

Where the writing and directing fails to deliver, the acting is pretty solid all around, with one notable exception. Dennis Quaid does a fine job playing this character as a pompous ass. The only problem with his performance is when it comes time for the shift for the jerk to the more open and carring version, I was not convinced. The duo of Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church provide the films best moments despite having a plot thread that never reaches a satisfying conclusion. Now let us not forget Sarah Jessica Parker, who comes across as bland and unappealing here. There is something about her apporach that just does not help, which I blame partially on the script. I just wonder what it would have been like had Rachel Weisz not pulled out.

Bottomline. As much potential as the film had, I was left unfulfilled. The story never takes off and I was never allowed to forget that this was an indie character film. Perhaps another rewrite would have helped. I cannot recommend this as much as I liked some of the performances.

Not Recommended.


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