Smart People (2008) dir. Norm Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
“Smart People” was a just blip on the theatre release calendar this year. Not even the immense Ellen Page Oscar buzz/hype machine could buoy this film. “Smart People” just isn’t smart enough to become what it longs to be – an intellectual comedy for adults. It’s for adults, that’s for sure. Attention deficit youngsters would get past the first 15mins. In fact it remains stalled in first gear for the entire film. Lack of substantial conflict and discernable goals for its characters result in a dreary bore of a film.
Dennis Quaid plays a University professor of poetry with the awfully pretentious name of Lawrence Wetherhold. He’s a self-absorbed reprehensible shit who doesn’t know his students’ names, makes pains to avoid them when they ask for help, desires to become the head of his department even though he hates his job. Beneath the rough exterior he’s a widower who hasn’t moved on, and he’s a failed author who just can’t get his book published. His n’er do well adopted brother (Lawrence even makes a point to acknowledge that distinction) Chuck arrives in town to crash on his couch. His daughter Vanessa is a type-A young Republican who gets straight A’s but is equally miserable inside. His son James actually has some talent with poetry, and so, is continually stunted by Dad. When a kindly doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessican Parker) starts dating Lawrence, instead of a refreshing change in his life Lawrence’s life becomes even more complicated and annoying.
After 15mins these characters split up into their respective subplots which occasionally intersect, and predictably get solved with a neat little bow at the end. “Smart People” is so insanely average and familiar, it’s annoying. Thomas Haden Church plays his character from “Sideways”, and sports perpetual bedhead and an unruly moustache – we get it, he’s off the wall. Ellen Page wears frumpy and constricting clothing – we get it, she’s a stuck up bitch. And Dennis Quaid’s character is just a clichéd and uninteresting version of Michael Douglas’ character in “Wonder Boys”.
A romantic comedy is pasted on to give the film some structure. No sparks are created between Ms. Parker and Mr. Quaid. They seem to hate each other more than love one another. We are told by Dr. Janet’s friend that she used to have a crush on Lawrence when he was her professor (many years ago). From this one line, we are to believe an attraction. Sorry Mr. Murro, you can’t disguise this cheat from the audiences. They know a relationship has to be earned on screen, and it takes more than a line of exposition and five mins of glances to sell it to us.
Chuck and Vanessa have their own subplot, as Chuck endeavours to release Vanessa from the constrictions of her succeed-at-all costs attitude. He gets her high, and drunk, but these scenes don’t provide any humour. It’s just going through the ringer of screenplay 101.
Despite these criticisms, for what Quaid, Page, Church and Parker have to work with they've all given it the college try. If there were anyone else less watchable in those roles, the film could have been intolerable. The fact is the actors make the film just that, tolerable. But who wants to see just a tolerable film?
"Smart People" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Miramax and Disney Home Entertainment