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Smart People
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Smart Actors, Foolish Script Choices"
2 stars

As anyone who has read “Anna Karenina” (or has at least cracked open their copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”) knows, Leo Tolstoy once famously wrote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If he were to somehow come back to life and chose to celebrate that miracle by taking in the new dramedy “Smart People,” he would probably elaborate on that sentiment to note that every indie film about unhappy families are all alike as well. Yes, this is another one of those movies in which the members of a quirky-but-miserable clan find themselves trapped in their various ruts until they each undergo a magical personality change in the last reel, a shift that is usually inspired either by the appearance of a loving, tolerant and often free-spirited outsider or by the knowledge that the end credits are fast approaching and something has to happen before then. There have been many of these films in the last few years and if you have seen only one of them, “Smart People” is just going to come across as more of the same. If you haven’t seen any of them before, I can assure you that there is nothing worth breaking that particular streak on display here.

Our dysfunctional brood this time around is the relentlessly cheerless Wetherhold clan. There is Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), a literature professor at Carnegie-Mellon who hates his job and can’t be bothered to deal with his students or fellow teachers on any level–oddly enough, this doesn’t preclude him for wanting to be named the head of the school’s English department, presumably so that he can ensure that everyone is just as grumpy and joyless as he is on a daily basis. There is daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page, whose presence is presumably the reason why this film is getting a big theatrical push), a hyper-ambitious overachiever who divides her time between achieving the perfect SAT score, running the local chapter of the Young Republicans club and trying to become just as big of a pill as her old man. There is son James (Ashton Holmes), who is off at college and who tends to be overlooked and ignored by both his family and the film–in both cases, this is not necessarily the worst thing that one could wish upon him. Before long, we learn that there was a wife/mother who passed away several years ago–we get no details as to what exactly happened to her but to judge from the people that she was closest to before shuffling off of this mortal coil, my guess is that she went with a smile on her face.

The cheerless dynamics of the Wetherhold clan are upended one night when Lawrence injures himself while trying to break into a car impound lot (you see, he is so curmudgeonly that he takes up two space when he parks) and winds up suffering a seizure as a result. In the ER, he is treated by Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and doesn’t realize that she used to be a student of his until a bum grade he gave her on a paper on “Bleak House” as a freshman caused her to drop her planned major in English and the crush that she developed for her teacher. As a result of the seizure, Lawrence is not allowed to drive and ne’er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) arrives to crash in the spare room and serve as a half-baked chauffeur (when he isn’t fully baked, that is). In an unlikely turn of events, Lawrence and Janet begin dating in a courtship that seems to find a new obstacle for them to overcome every time a dramatic development is required. Meanwhile, Chuck senses that Vanessa is miserably unhappy behind her carefully controlled image and takes it upon himself to get her to loosen up in the common manner of many a ne’er-do-well uncle in the past–he gets her to smoke pot and sneaks her into a bar to get hammered one night–though his efforts do result in a development that is presumably not as common.

As I sat there and watched “Smart People” unfolding before my eyes, it dawned on me that there was only one simple problem with the film that kept me from liking it–I didn’t buy into any aspect of Mark Poirier’s screenplay for a single second. I take that back; I did buy the disastrous way that the first date between Lawrence and Janet unfold with him pontificating endlessly until she finally gets up and leaves. However, I didn’t buy the idea that the two of them would have ever gone out in the first place. I didn’t buy the idea that she would immediately relent and go out with him on a second date. I didn’t buy the fact that they would become a couple, even though they seem to be perfect for each other in the sense that they appear to love making each other miserable. I didn’t buy the circumstances that seem to tear them apart for good just before the commencement of the third act (one of those pointless fights that occurs between characters in a lazy screenplay when the writer is unable to think of a more plausible conflict) and I certainly didn’t buy the circumstances that bring them back together. In other news, I didn’t buy the relationship between Vanessa and Chuck and the strange ways in which it develops. I didn’t buy the silly ways in which the film depicts either the cutthroat world of faculty politics or the equally venal world of publishing (in one of the most unlikely plot twists, a book editor becomes convinced that Lawrence’s seemingly unreadable manuscript on critical theory has all the ingredients to be a best-seller). I didn’t buy the last-minute developments involving James (remember him?). I didn’t buy the way that the screenplay repeatedly introduces seemingly insurmountable conflicts and then goes ahead and surmounts them two scenes later in such off-hand and transition-free ways that you wonder why they bothered to include them in the first place.

I also didn’t buy any of the characters for a moment either. Oh, the actors are good enough and most of them manage to carve out individual moments–a line reading here, a look there–that work on some level every once in a while but for the most part, the parts they are playing are so implausible that not even their considerable talents can help make sense of them. In the last few years, Dennis Quaid has seemingly followed the career path of Kurt Russell and developed into one of the more dependable American leading men at work today but while he has shown considerable range in the last few years, it is impossible to believe him for a second as a curmudgeonly college professor whose life is at a standstill–if he hadn’t already played a variation of the role in the infinitely superior “Sideways,” this would have been an ideal role for the likes of Paul Giamatti. As his daughter, Ellen Page gets a few good lines but it is likewise difficult to buy here as a chilly control freak, partly because she has been written in such a confusing manner (even though she is supposed to be overly devoted to every aspect of her father’s life, the screenplay requires her to not want to visit him in the hospital at the beginning just to set up a false conflict with Janet) and partly because her entire performance is essentially a slight variation on her excellent work in “Juno” that doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Likewise, Thomas Haden Church has a few nice moments but he is also playing a variation of roles that he has done to far more interesting effect in other films. As for Sarah Jessica Parker, she tries but her character is such a nothing from the get-go that she barely even registers on the screen. These are all good and talented actors and it is difficult to understand why such smart people would make such foolish choices by agreeing to appear in a film that was so far beneath their talents. Maybe they thought that by doing something so far beneath their obvious intelligence levels for no good reasons whatsoever, they would somehow be getting into character. If so, it is too bad that they couldn’t have saved those efforts for a project that was worthier of them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16929&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/11/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/19/08 Colleen H an incredible yawn! what a big fat disappointment. 1 stars
8/27/08 Jennifer R entirely forgettable and unengaging. witty dialogue often falls flat. 2 stars
8/24/08 Jack Somemrsby More or less a subpar "Wonder Boys" with caricatures rather than characters. 2 stars
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  11-Apr-2008 (R)
  DVD: 12-Aug-2008



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