Smart People

Rating:

Smart People? Dumb Movie.

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

I don’t know why I get all jazzed about a new actor or actress when I know they may have a sophomore slump. I suppose the slump originates from elevated expectations that aren’t usually met. But I thought Ellen Page might just be different. Even though Juno wasn’t her first role, it was certainly her breakout role and I expected great things from her in Smart People. Some people never learn…

Smart People introduces us to Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid). Lawrence is a burned out, washed up professor who is absolutely certain that only he and a select few others are cognitively competent. He uses lots of big words in obscure contexts for the sole purpose of reminding others of their inferiority. Yep, our “protagonist” is a pompous jerk circling the drain. Dennis Quaid is good, but that’s a tough sell.

As Lawrence mopes through his day, feeling terrifically sorry for himself because everyone else is so stupid, his family orbits in fumbling circles, forever at the beck and call of the fabulous Lawrence. We’re introduced in rapid succession to Vanessa (Page), sarcastic, insecure, perfectionist daughter; James (Ashton Holmes), disaffected son who still yearns for the approval of his father; and adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), polar opposite of Lawrence arriving to borrow money. When Lawrence is hospitalized after a fall, he acquires another satellite, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). The film excruciatingly details a slice of this rather grotesque (yet still managing to perfectly fill every cliché nook) little group’s life as they (perhaps) lean a tiny bit closer to functional.

Smart People would be a lot smarter if it wasn’t composed of bits and pieces of other films. Lawrence, James and Vanessa are right out of the far superior The Squid and the Whale, Lawrence and Chuck are nothing more than a dramatic Odd Couple and Dr. Hartigan is Katie Holmes sleeping with her childhood crush (ewwwwwwwwww – that one’s real life!).   Been there, done that with the haughty intellectual academic and his inability to deal with his family. The story ends up being ridiculously predictable; there isn’t a single development that isn’t telegraphed both within the story and from the viewer’s own memory.

The actors all try and they don’t really fail. Quaid maintains his slumped, slightly off center shamble throughout – a postural picture of a miserable man. Page does justice to the stereotype that is Vanessa. Precocious because she has no choice, a miniature housewife trying to make a home for her widowed father, Vanessa is a desperately unhappy little girl who has no idea how to be anyone other than her father’s daughter. Her fussy wardrobe and clipped but always slightly questioning affirmation of everything her father says makes us feel for her once in a while. Most of the time we would like to send her to her room or ground her for life. Page makes the most of her opportunity to be a brat.

Hayden Church does what he does best – and acts like a goofy, immature man-child. He shows a surprising depth and subtlety as the film progresses that is really one of Smart People’s highlights.  His nuanced performance is one of the very few things not telgraphed to the audience.  Unlike her castmates, Sarah Jessica Parker is awful. She lacks chemistry with Quaid, is not believable either as a lover of literature or as a physician and most if not all of her actions make little sense except in Recycled Movie Plot Land. Where the others are dragged down by bad material, she makes bad material worse with an unconvincing delivery.

I actually enjoyed Smart People for about half an hour. After then, the characters grated, the lack of originality began hitting full force and the insipid romance between Quaid and Parker began taking far too much screen time. The witty dialogue in the first ten minutes became forced and repetitive after an hour. Despite good performances from most of the cast – particularly Thomas Hayden Church – writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro give us little to sustain a full length feature.

Too repetitive, too predictable, too annoying. Smart People is a Dumb Movie.

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