Friday, April 11, 2008

"Smart People" -- * * *

Noam Murro's "Smart People" has unsurprisingly received scathing pans from the likes of the Village Voice and Slant Magazine, and it's easy to see why; this is exactly the sort of formula quirk-fest that hipper filmgoers slowly-but-surely have gotten sick of over the last few years (I fear we may have reached a point of no return post-"Juno"). I hate clever for clever's sake as much as anyone, but I really don't think "Smart People" is that. While I'll admit it's the sort of paint-by-numbers "indie"-feeling, quirky family dramedy that seems to thrive at the Sundance Film Festival, I've also got to admit that, for the most part, it works. The characters are engaging, the performances solid, and the script is clever and economical without overloading on quirk.

Centering around self-possessed, assholish Carnegie Mellon professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), "Smart People" opens by establishing his predeliction towards not bothering to remember his students' names, and his troubled family life at home; both will prove important later on. After landing in the hospital while climbing an impound lot's fence, Lawrence is instructed by his doctor, former schoolgirl-crushing student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) that he can't operate an automobile for the next six months. Luckily, his mooching slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is in town to serves as his driver, as well as to teach Lawrence's Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) how to enjoy life (i.e.: smoke weed and engage in underage drinking). Though the self-absorbed Lawrence insists on constantly reminding Chuck that he's adopted (he repeatedly calls him "adopted brother," Royal Tenenbaum style) and remains oblivious to his son James's (Ashton Homes) writing talent, his slow, uneasy romance with Janet begins to make him slightly more aware of his foibles.

This is the sort of thing that lives and dies by its ensemble, so luckily, it has a relatively strong one. And, though he's not playing the lead character by any means, any discussion of the cast has to begin with Church. In a fairly conventional role (the slacker, "free-spirited," stoner brother), the actor makes the cliched Chuck not only three-dimensional, but by far the most interesting character in the movie. He brings to mind "Sideways's" Jack by showing his ass twice here, but he manages to utilize his brazenly deadpan delivery again without cutting the two characters from the same cloth. As the family member with the least ambition, but the most attuned moral compass, Church makes the movie's liveliness jump up a notch whenever he's on screen. Said delivery is used to brilliant effect and makes me laugh more than it probably should ("I'm watching a documentary about snow apes," had me in a giggle fit). Church showed in the otherwise abominable "Spider-Man 3" that he's equally capable of solid dramatic work, but "Smart People" reminds us we need him on hand to liven up more comedies.

Despite him having his ardent supporters, I've never found Quaid to be the strongest of actors (yes, even in "Far From Heaven"); I tend to find him bland in dramas and over-reaching in comedies. However, the usually not-too-charismatic Quaid fits surprisingly comfortably into the skin of flinty, intentionally double-parking Lawrence. Normally, I flinch when I find out he's the lead in a film, but he's actually enjoyable to watch here, and it's not a chore to spend the movie's 84 minutes with him.

While not problematic per se, the females in the cast don't fare quite as well. Hot off her Oscar nom, Page is adequately (if more than a bit Juno-ily) snarky as the quickly "becoming an android" Vanessa, and gets off a few good lines, but the character's formation is hampered by a fundamental flaw. The smart-ass, hip, perceptive way Page plays the character never allows her to become believable as a turtleneck-wearing Young Republican who has a picture of Reagan hanging on her wall and idolizes Dick Cheney. And while I totally admit it's base and immature on my part, I question the decision to include a scene of the actress wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts, which did nothing but provoke a thought of "Oh my god, Ellen Page DOES have the body of an 8-year-old boy."

Parker does just fine here, but she's the one central cast member who seems to just be filling a nondescript role. While the other three seem as if their parts were tailored for their sensibilities, she makes little impression on us and the part seems like it could've easily been played just as adeptly by any other competent actress.

Mark Poirier's script has some elements that hint at more complexity, but ultimately decides to keep everything fairly palatable and mainstream. For one, a clunky drunken kiss between relatives goes nowhere, but more noticeably, the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with Ashton Holmes's James. He rears his head just long enough to show resentment towards Lawrence, but it doesn't pay off in any real way; I have a feeling we'll see much of him in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Also, for a script that mostly prides itself on clever, smarty-pants dialogue, lines like "I downloaded the recipe off the Internet" (said by a teenage character) sounds like they were written by an aging, not too tech-savvy screenwriter trying to be in touch with what the kids are doing.

But more often than not, the prose on display here seem natural, and strike just the right balance between funny and perceptive. When Chuck offers Vanessa a joint, she quickly responds, "Great, I'm in an after-school special" before we have a chance to think the same thing. It's also much appreciated that the characters' predictable growths and progressions are of an especially mild sort, and don't strain credulity (slight acknowledgement of flaws are the order of the day here, rather than life-changing revelations). But what I most appreciated about the script was its acknowledgment of the different between clever and too clever; while characters deliver the occasional quotable bit of dialogue, Poirier knows sometimes to say more by saying less. Late in the film, there's a refreshingly different reaction to a pregnancy test than we got in Diablo Cody's screenplay for "Juno." The character seeing their test results here just utters a simple "Shit," rather than "Geez, Banana, that little pink plus sign is so unholy! Silencio, old man, I'm for shiz up the spout!"

Even with the potential to leave your mind minutes after watching it, this is a genuinely funny (if tame) dramedy that follows a formula, but infuses it with enough freshness and entertainment value to make it worthwhile. Though it does recall other films of its ilk (you'll probably hear the "Little Miss Sunshine meets Wonder Boys" application more than once), "Smart People" is a witty, enjoyable look at the sort of intellectual superiority that many of us either witness or send out on a daily basis. Living up to its title, the movie is smart enough to not give us drastic character evolutions or overly clever/cute dialogue, and manages the difficult task of making eliticism accessible.


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