Smart People Review
Released without much fanfare earlier this year, Smart People was overshadowed by two big-hitters starring the film's two female leads. Ellen Page had already wowed critics with her turn in Juno and, of course, Sarah Jessica Parker was preparing for Carrie fever to sweep the world with the long-awaited release of Sex and the City. Director Noam Murro must have been thanking his lucky stars that his quiet little indie film was being released with so much hype surrounding his cast members. Alas, Smart People didn't make so much as a dent at the UK box office. Nevertheless, these types of film tend to find their audience on DVD and so it is my job to tell you whether it's a smart idea to let this film find you.
Smart People's titular bunch are headed by Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a recently widowed English professor teaching at a Pittsburgh university. Socially awkward and conceited, he is more concerned with publishing his latest manuscript ("The Price of Postmodernism: Epistomology, Hermeneutics and the Literary Canon") than connecting with his students. Following a trauma-induced seizure, he wakes up in hospital to find he is being treated by Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student whom he once awarded a 'C' grade. As the two stumble into a burgeoning relationship, it is left to Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to broaden the mind of the professor's scholarly daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). Will these so-called smarties find happiness?
More importantly, will we care? Although Smart People undoubtedly has a heart, it's so buried beneath miserable scowls worn by unsympathetic characters that it's hard to muster any strong feelings for them at all. Mark Poirier's script does have its share of dryly funny moments, mostly provided by Hayden Church's hapless but loveable salesman/scam artist, but lacks anything original to say. So, smart people are emotionally damaged train wrecks too, huh? Haven't seen that done before.
It's unfortunate that the top-notch cast are saddled with such dull, narcissistic characters. Quaid, playing a desperately unhappy and cranky man, does his best with the type of 'autumn' role Michael Douglas won acclaim with in Wonder Boys. As his love interest, Sarah Jessica Parker proves there's more to her than that show by making Janet the most likeable of the lot - that is, until she becomes as ugly and whiney as everyone else onscreen. Full props go to Ellen Page, who plays the utterly monstrous and unlikeable brat Vanessa yet somehow slowly wins us over; her scenes with Church, wherein the irresponsible uncle takes the 17-year-old Young Republican to a bar and gets her steaming drunk, are the highlight of an otherwise slow-going 91 minutes.
At one point, Vanessa informs her father that she thinks self-absorption is 'underrated'. It's not when your audience don't care, hun. My advice: stick to Juno, a film that features another sparky Page performance but also makes you care about the characters in a way Smart People strives to but fails. By the end of the film, everyone's a lot happier and a lot nicer but it's too late for me to take back the 'C' Lawrence Wetherhold would surely have awarded this lukewarm addition to the 'dysfunctional people' canon of American indie cinema.
A fine crisp transfer and clear but unremarkable audio tracks, both English 2.0 and 5.1, feature on a disc with not a single extra. Apparently, this film is so smart it doesn't need to explain itself via commentary. Pfft.