A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 95 mins.


Lawrence: Dennis Quaid / Janet: Sarah Jessica Parker / Chuck: Thomas Haden Church / Vanessa: Ellen Page / James: Ashton Holmes

Directed by Noam Murro / Written by Mark Poirier

"Give me a smart idiot over a stupid genius any day!"

- Samuel Goldwyn

 American producer and founder of MGM

SMART PEOPLE is an exceptionally well-rounded character study that walks that ever so fine line between low-key laughs and subtle drama.  It’s a most welcome relief for jaded and disinterested filmgoers that feel that ill at ease with the listlessness and redundancy of the dramady genre.  

What it does – and does with a judicious and confident efficiency – is to paint a portrait of family dysfunction as seen through the eyes of four people, all of whom are sharply drawn, perceptively realized, and more often than not share a common trait:  They are often too wrapped up within their own egotistical self-absorption that happiness and meaningful relationships elude them.  The personas in SMART PEOPLE are fiercely smart, but they lack the common sense smarts to escape the loneliness and despair that plague them.   

At the heart of the film is the notion that each one of the main characters are slight threats to each other and what they see as their pursuit of happiness.  What they don’t see is how they can inevitably help each other.  We have a college professor that feels threatened by the presence of his half-brother, whom he feels is a middle-aged stoner/slacker with nothing meaningful to contribute to his family.  What he fails to see is how the “dumb” brother may be more insightful and observant that he gives him credit for.  

We have the daughter of the college professor; a rabid overachieving personality that places her scholarly father on a pedestal of hero worship, but feels threatened by the presence of his new girlfriend, an ER doctor that was once a former student of his.  What the daughter fails to see is how the woman could help alleviate her father’s constant and unhealthy clinging to the memory of his deceased wife. 

The girlfriend feels threatened by her past college freshman crush on the professor that negatively spills into her present relationship with him.  She resents a bad grade that he gave her on a literature paper, which prompted her dropping out of English and into medicine, but she fails to see that, perhaps deep down, there is a man that could love her. 

It’s the richness, emotional weight, and texture of the characters and their mutually reciprocal relationships that make SMART PEOPLE stand apart from lesser dramadies.  The film was directed with a sure-fire hand and restrained focus by Noam Murro – making his filmmaking debut - and written with a keen eye for sublime dialogue by novelist Mark Poirier – also making his screenwriting debut - and this tandem allows for SMART PEOPLE to not degenerate into another routine, formulaic, feel-good picture about dysfunctional personalities that become better people.  I love the fact the script and the actors never fall into a claptrap pitfall of making these people too warmed-ever and pedestrian, nor do they soft-pedal the material towards an obligatory happy ending.  Most of the people in SMART PEOPLE are discomforting, rancorous, and socially stunted and there is never an attempt to make any of them take a radical 180 degree personality change to appease; even in the end one of the characters willfully professes that he knows he’s an insufferable and pompous asshole.  These characters start off as emotionally weak and jaded and they end the film in much the same manner, but there is a glimpse that – despite all of their flaws – they are willing to try to understand each other. 

The story itself centers on a ridiculously verbose, self-centered, egotistical, and introverted college professor named Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid, terrific here as he demonstrates how his increasing age and withered appearance makes him more interesting as an actor and leading man).  He specializes in Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  He is a widower that has some separation issues (he still keeps a shrine in his home of all of his wife’s clothes and refuses to let them go) but he even has greater problems as a personable teacher to his students; they all seem to collective view him as an uncaring, snobbish, and difficult to approach jerk.  He desperately wants to get his book published and to be head of the English department, but his book is widely panned by publishers as an slumbering borefest and his colleagues find the prof too self-centered and gruff to be considered for the job of department head. 

Lawrence’s home life is not much better.  He has two kids, one of them a 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), that is enormously book smart and almost unhealthily ambitious (she is kind of a female version of the character Michael J. Fox played on the sitcom FAMILY TIES: she’s in desirably sharp-witted, shrewd, and possesses and enormous level of textbook intelligence, but she is a dunce when it comes to being a normal, well adjusted teenager).  The second child is Lawrence’s son, James (Ashton Holmes) who lives on campus and seems to think that his dad is completely out of touch with his world.  Lawrence has a third child, so to speak, in the form of his half-brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) who appears from time to time to haplessly asking his bro for money.  Lawrence sees Chuck less as a family member than as a toddler trapped in a forty something’s body. 

Things go south really fast for Lawrence when he has an accident while trying to get his car out of the college’s impound and suffers a brain injury in a fall.  As a result, he is not allowed to drive for half a year.  No problem, says his doofus brother, because he volunteers to live with him and be his driver during that time.  Things get even more complicated for the professor when the ER doctor that treated him, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) starts to recast her eyes on him as she initially did as a college student under his tutelage years earlier. 

As stated, one of SMART PEOPLE’s chief assets is its razor sharp script, which is laced with finely sarcastic dialogue exchanges, awkward pauses and beats, and characters that seem to drown in their own obtuseness.  Most of the characters are not likeable, but what is likeable is the way the film takes people that are essentially unsympathetic and disagreeable and makes us invest in them and their emotional quandaries.  This is helped considerably by the lively and spirited dialogue exchanges which are filled with underplayed disdain and pain alongside moments of under-cranked hilarity.  It’s decidedly tough for a film to traverse between pathos and laughs, and SMART PEOPLE is able to make that journey will little effort, which only allows for the characters to come across as more well rounded and realistic.  Moreover, the screenplay does not overwhelm with grand epiphanies or grating moments of characters “changing for the better.”  These people want to change, but may never to so, which gives the film an intriguing undercurrent of melancholy and sadness. 

Most crucial to the film are the terrific assemble performances here.  I especially liked Dennis Quaid’s rumpled, disheveled, and self-aggrandizing portrayal of the professor who’s utterly absorbed within his own sense of purpose and importance.  I think that Quaid has made interesting choices as an actor, especially for the way he plays up the frailties and foibles of his age.  Equally compelling is Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress often prone to taking more glamorous parts, but here she is striped down and plays a delicate and emotionally frail woman that tries to come to grips with her past and present feelings for the professor.  Look at the manner with which she completely commands the screen in a few key scenes – one during a first date with the professor and one in a hotel with him when she keeps a crucial secret from him – and notice how she is able to nicely underplay these moments for a string dramatic effect. 

However strong Quaid and Parker are here, Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page unreservedly own SMART PEOPLE.  Church is an actor that is slowly approaching Bill Murray territory with the way he is able to play comedy and drama with effortless modulation.  He is a master of laconic, dead panned delivery and his meager economy with enunciation garners some of the film’s biggest laughs (as in one scene when he tells his brother, “You spend $50 on dinner, that's grounds for intercourse” or during a tense Christmas dinner with Janet which leads to him hilariously stating, “These children haven't been properly parented in many years. They're practically feral. That's why I was brought in”).  As robust and knee slapping as his light comic scenes are, Church is also more than adept at playing heavier sequences in the film where he reveals a restrained layer to his character that hints that he may be the wisest person in the whole film.

I have said it before and will do so again here: Is there a better young actress working in contemporary films than the Canadian-born Ellen Page?  I sure don’t think so.  Her previous success with her ubiquitously praised work in last year’s JUNO (my best film of 2007) had many feeling that Page would go on to play characters that are essentially Juno clones because, let’s face it, she’s so good at it.  Her portrayal of Vanessa is kind of the complete opposite of the acid tongued, angst ridden teen slacker in JUNO as here she plays a girl that is more mature, intelligent, articulate, and book-wormishly assured.  What’s great is how Page is able to dial into this character’s deep insecurities without overplaying scenes for overkill.  Vanessa is feisty, headstrong, and a cauldron of scornful conceitedness, but deep down she is a social misfit that has no clue how to connect with people.  Page sells all of this in scene after scene of performance economy.  SMART PEOPLE should be required viewing for people and critics that think that Page has little range beyond her JUNO role.  HARD CANDY, THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS, JUNO, and now this film not only reveal the breadth and daring variety of her role choices, but an overall consistent steadiness and assuredness that actresses double her age can’t muster.  Actresses of this caliber do not elude Oscar glory for long.

SMART PEOPLE has some rough edges; the character of the professor’s son is somewhat overlooked, as is their rocky relationship, which is typically shown in brief glimpse here and there, not to mention that the story progression hits some preordained beats.  Nonetheless, these small criticisms do not overpower SMART PEOPLE from being a uniformly funny, engaging, keenly observed, and oftentimes touching and moving portrait of how people learn to deal with their own self-inflicted insecurities and weaknesses.   Thankfully, the film deals with these themes with whimsicality, charm, and poignancy.  And, yes, the film is atypically smart when compared to other films like it.

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