Smart People

Smart People

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

In the words of renowned Russian chuckle-trousers Leo Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – a fact for which the American film industry ought to be giving daily thanks. A flourishing sub-genre in recent years has been the quirky indy-ish study of the dysfunctional, decidedly non-nuclear unit working out its many and varied collective hangups with (sometimes) hilarious results, usually rounded off with a bittersweet, philosophical ending. It’s given Wes Anderson an entire career, produced a host of other gems along the way – Junebug, Little Miss Sunshine and most recently, Juno – and the debut effort of novelist Poirier and commercials director Murro is a worthy addition to the canon, without ever quite blossoming into the solid-gold classic it could have been.

The protagonist is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a permanently rumpled, curmudgeonly English professor at a university in Pittsburgh. He’s the classic absent-minded genius, alternately terrorising and inspiring his students without ever connecting to them as people, a man who can dissect the works of Matthew Arnold with forensic skill and insight, but struggles to park his car properly .

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Still unable to come to terms with the death of his wife several years after the event, Lawrence's life is kept in some kind of order by his precocious daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) – an order regularly disrupted by the appearance of his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a serial failure on a constant quest for crash space and stake money while he engineers his latest get-rich-quick scheme. Lawrence is struggling to get his ‘challenging’ book on critical theory published, uncertain as to whether to go for a more senior post in the department and at odds with his equally brilliant but semi-estranged son James (Ashton Holmes, Viggo Mortensen’s lad in A History Of Violence). It’s a mixed bag of a life, and one that looks set to trundle on indefinitely – until an accident brings him into contact with Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an ER doctor who once took his Victorian literature course.

Naturally, he can’t remember her but she certainly remembers him, and as a romance blossoms Lawrence begins to wonder if he can’t turn his life around a bit – cheered on by Chuck and constantly sabotaged by Vanessa, who sees her status as surrogate mom challenged big-time. Not Transformers II, then. Those seeking wall-to-wall CGI and non-stop action definitely need not apply. But anyone who believes there’s also a place in cinema for old-fashioned stuff like a good script, top-notch acting and the occasional attempt to ask (if not always answer) some of the Big Questions should make a bee-line.

It’s true that we’ve been here before – all the works cited above, plus Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys spring to mind – and the comedy could occasionally do with a bit more edge and satirical thrust. But this is a good-hearted, understanding look at how the titular smart people can often do very dumb things. The course of Lawrence and Janet’s romance definitely doesn’t run smooth and the audience is genuinely left in doubt as to whether they will (or can) resolve their various issues.

Of course, you’re only going to care about any of this if the performers deliver, but for his central relationship Murro has two very safe pairs of hands. Quaid’s days as a classic leading man may be in the past, but he still has charisma and screen presence by the bucketload, as well as genuine comic timing. Lawrence is a memorable creation, infuriating in many ways, but possessed of a genuine passion for his subject and a talent for inspiring others. You can believe someone like Janet would fall for him.

A rare celluloid sighting of The Actress Best Known As Carrie Bradshaw will no doubt draw in Sex And The City fans eagerly awaiting the uberchick quartet’s big-screen outing, but Parker here gives further proof that she can play parts other than ‘Manhattan clotheshorse’. Janet’s almost the polar opposite of her most famous creation – a buttoned-down, controlled individual, but with more than a few hang-ups of her own, uncertain of Lawrence’s true feelings for her and almost afraid to surrender herself to love.

The supporting cast are equally impressive. Page proves that Juno was no flash in the pan, lighting up the film whenever she’s on screen. Once again, she’s something of a one-liner factory (does anybody in real life say something funny ALL the time?) but still manages to paint a picture of a confused girl pretending to be a focused grown-up, deliberately rejecting her father’s laid-back, liberal lifestyle. A tender, well-handled subplot has her developing an inappropriate crush on Chuck precisely because he represents the freewheeling, rebellious life she’s never had a chance to experience. A scene where he smuggles her into a bar and they watch ordinary, non-brilliant people simply winding down and having a bit of a laugh is one of the film’s highpoints.

As for Church – well, once again he delivers an effortless masterclass in comic acting. Chuck is another permanently dazed manchild, not a million miles away from Jack in Sideways. One could argue that this kind of role isn’t exactly a stretch for him, but he, like, does it so well, dude.

Between them, the central quartet keep things ticking over nicely. It just misses five-star status by being a little bit too content to play out its central relationships and not develop some potentially interesting themes – what does the breakdown of classic family structures say about American society as a whole? How does Lawrence’s ‘journey’ compare with that of the protagonists in his beloved Victorian novels, a genre that invented some of the conventions modern cinematic storytelling still adheres to?

Too heavy for what’s essentially a feelgood romcom, perhaps. But Murro and Poirier are obviously trying something a little different as well and a bit more ambition might have made all the difference. In the end, like its main character, Smart People is a little bit too laid-back and tightly focused for its own good. But overall, definitely a B-plus – and straight A’s for the acting.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2008
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Smart People packshot
Can a little romance and a bit of brotherly bonding help a self-absorbed professor confront his life?
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Read more Smart People reviews:

George Williamson ***

Director: Noam Murro

Writer: Mark Jude Poirier

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2008

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If you like this, try:

The Royal Tenenbaums
Sideways
Wonder Boys