‘Smart People’: A good first effort

Wed, 04/23/2008 - 9:54am
By: Emily Baldwin

With a solid cast and an interesting premise, commercial director Noam Murro makes the transition to feature films with the new indie flick “Smart People.”

The film stars Dennis Quaid as Lawrence Wetherhold, a self-absorbed and pompous literature professor, struggling to raise his college-aged son and teenage daughter (Ellen Page) in the wake of his wife’s death.

Things haven’t exactly been going Lawrence’s way. His book has been rejected by every publisher he submitted it to, and he’s been asked to chair the search committee to find the next department head – a position he’s been eyeing for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a shiftless leech, has come looking for a place to stay. His lackadaisical approach to life is in direct conflict with that of Vanessa, Lawrence’s overachieving and inflexible daughter. While Vanessa does her best to impress her self-involved father, Chuck sets his sights on adding a little more fun into the dour household.

When his car gets impounded, Lawrence injures himself by trying to climb the fence at the impound lot. At the hospital he is reunited with a former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). It turns out that Lawrence’s acerbic teaching style influenced Janet to change her major from literature to biology. Despite her better judgement, Janet’s school-girl crush on her former professor influences her to accept a date with him – which Vanessa wholeheartedly disapproves of and makes clear to both her dad and Janet.

“Smart People” has all the elements to make for a great indie film about messed up people and their messed up lives. While it makes for a fairly interesting movie, it doesn’t hit a home run for me.

While Quaid, Parker and Page all successfully hit their marks, it is Church as the idiosyncratic, adopted brother who nails his role and adds some much-needed humor to the film.

I appreciate script writer Mark Jude Poirier’s viewpoint and his restraint in how his characters develop throughout the film. While many films with this many antipathetic characters – those whom you root for despite themselves – will want there to be an epiphany of sorts during which the characters see the light and change for the better, Poirier avoids some obvious choices. That’s not to say that his characters don’t make changes for the better, but the changes are tempered with realism.

Where the film falls short, however, is in its lack of humor. Labeled a comedy, “Smart People” could have had a lot more to offer in that department. Page knocked audiences out with her humor in last year’s “Juno,” but she wasn’t given many opportunities to make us laugh in this film.

Overall, “Smart People” is not a bad effort for a new film writer and new feature film director, but I’ll look forward to seeing how they grow in future films.

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