Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Smart People

It's kind of interesting that for a film called Smart People, the screenplay makes so many stupid decisions. Let me put it into perspective. Do you remember the first twenty minutes of Juno? Before (it would seem) Diablo Cody snapped her fingers and said, “Hmm...perhaps that's enough schtick. I should probably get around to starting the movie now.” Well, imagine all of those moments (that painful scene in the convenient store, the first scene in the classroom with Juno and Bleeker are in science class) stretched out over a 100 minute film and you pretty much have Smart People.

Does that make sense? I'm sure it doesn't. I definitely wasn't as annoyed by Smart People as I was by the first twenty minutes of Juno. I don't think there are very many things that could annoy me as much (and I enjoyed Juno, but goddamn...those first twenty minutes “home-skillet”). What I'm saying is that Smart People, written by newcomer Mark Poirier and directed by Noam Murro (also his debut), has trouble finding its tone and its footing. There are some good moments here, but they mostly just punctuate a movie that has no idea kind of movie it wants to be.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a college English professor at Carnegie Mellon. He's a widower, who's apparently brilliant, though you wouldn't necessarily know it by watching this film other than the fact that it's constantly mentioned. He neither does nor says anything particularly smart or even memorable, but he is one of those guys who is so brilliant that he's socially retarded—we all know people like him, and if you don't, you probably are him. After getting a concussion, he winds up in the hospital where his doctor, in a magical twist of fate, turns out to be one of his former students (Sarah Jessica Parekr) to whom he gave a less than favorable grade. She's there to help him feel again, after the loss of his wife. Seriously. Her name is even Dr. Hartigan (“Heart-again.” Get it?)

Much to the dismay of his over-achieving daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), he is unable to drive for six months, so she enlists the help of Lawrence's derelict adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a free spirit brought in to brighten up the dismal and drab lives of these characters who are two smart for their own good. This is all pretty much taken from “Dark Comedy 101.” Oh, and by the way, Lawrence has a son named James (Ashton Holmes) who's angry at him since the death of his mother. The way I just mentioned that is not an accident, and is akin to the role he serves in this movie. Very much, “oh, by the way...”

Smart People is at once, over-written and under-written. It's over-written in the sense that many of the jokes go over about as well as a fart in church—some are not even jokes, rather, but what seem like an attempt by screenwriter Mark Poirier to prove how he's smart and cosmopolitan. You can practically hear the “clackity-clack” of the keyboard and feel Poirier sweating, he's trying so hard. It's under-written in the sense that these are not characters, but rather character archetypes (maybe with the exception of Thomas Haden Church, who does what he can within the confines of this film). Thus, a lot of their actions feel unmotivated or questionable because ultimately we find out very little, if anything, about these people. Consider a scene in which Vanessa and good ol' Uncle Chuck smoke pot together, as he tries to get her to come out of her Young Republican shell. I'm convinced more than ever that this scene was mistakenly placed out of sequence, maybe a cruel joke by the editor. Because it happens very early in the film and is followed by scenes of Vanessa both resisting and giving into Chuck's smarmy charm, as if she's schizophrenic. Does she respect her uncle or not? And when? At what point does she go from thinking he's a slacker to a cool, laidback guy? I don't know and I'm not sure the filmmakers do either.

Shall I write more about the direction, the acting, the pacing? I just did. They each range from being completely by-the-book, or being aimless and without focus (though I suppose those two qualities are not always mutually exclusive). I will speak about Ellen Page, as it seems my suspicions have been confirmed and the pigeon-hole casting has begun. I was rather unsurprised to discover that Smart People had been held over for some time, no doubt released strategically to coincide with the DVD release of Juno, which was filmed sometime after. I won't blame Page too much, as this is not a well-written, or even original character. Seriously, the over-achieving, over-zealous, mildly-precocious high school student has been done to death, and much better (Tracy Enid Flick anyone?). But my assessment, after viewing Hard Candy, Juno and now Smart People—films that run the gamut from great to good and ho-hum, respectively—I am now convinced more than ever that Ellen Page needs to step firmly out of her comfort zone if she hopes to achieve some staying power.

And Dennis Quaid...he had somewhat of a renaissance in 2002 with the release of a little film called Far From Heaven (my favorite film of that year). With every subsequent role, he seeks to undo what was done so beautifully by writer-director Todd Haynes in showcasing Quaid's talent as an actor. Cold Creek Manor? The Alamo? Yours, Mine and Ours?! Smarten up, Dennis.

Watching this film, the last thing I thought I would ever say was that it ends too soon, but it does. Its conclusion (which I will not give away here) is abrupt—ridiculously so. To call it improbable is not the word. Much like much of the potential of this movie, it's simply unrealized. If you watch this film and are, in fact, a smart person, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Grade: C+

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