Sunday, July 27, 2008

Smart People **

Director: Noam Murro
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page
Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes

With a self absorbed title that immediately gives away the fim's "look at how indie I am" intentions, "Smart People" presents itself in the same hazy New England settings where we have learnt that middle class, dysfunctional families treat emotional pain by throwing witty bits of dialogue at each other.
This particular family is headed by English Professor Lawrence Whetherhold (Quaid), a depressed widower who is loathed by people in the univeristy where he teaches.
His daughter Vanessa (Page) is a young Republican who has taken on the role of Stepford wife after her mom's death.
His son James (Holmes) lives in his college dormitory (and the film really gets rid of him except when it needs to display large showcases of quirkiness).
The lives of the Whetherhold family members get shaken a bit with the appearance of Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck (Haden Church), a pot smoking, womanizing slacker who crashes with the family and tries to put some life in them and with Lawrence's unexpected romance with doctor Janet (Parker who is lovely as usual, but really underwritten as a character) a former student of his with a complicated emotional agenda of her own.
The problem with "Smart People" (note the intentional self conscious smirk of the title...) is that it never dares to push itself and its characters, merely relying on them as stereotypes (not archetypes as it thinks it does) of other indie films.
Quaid, who constantly proves he's a much better actor than people think, seems extracted from "The Squid and the Whale", complete with greasy hair, unkempt beard and a protruding belly all meant to scream "college professor with issues", but Quaid gives Lawrence a detached sincerity.
He acts like an arrogant prick, because that's what he's always been.
Page, who on the contrary constantly proves what a one note actress she is, feels like a hybrid of Juno and Jennifer Garner's character in the film; a control freak with growing up issues, who just can't help but throw a snarky remark whenever she can.
The one beautiful thing about Page is that her attempts at restraining her youthful spirit always fail and now and then she shines and only then does she feel like a real person.
Haden Church does the same thing he did in "Sideways", but he does end up stealing the film, because unintentionally his character is the only one who seems to catch on how fake everyone else is and his carelessness, which might be contempt in disguise, is a real punch in the face.
"Smart People" is enjoyable, but relies too much on things the characters it portrays never would consider. During one scene Lawrence is trying to win back the affections of Janet, he approaches her and confesses that he hasn't had any epiphanies or enlightenment and that he's till the same person he always was.
The film would love to think of itself as that, problem is we never really knew what kind it was.

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