"I think we both need to just, you know...get a life."
It must have been tough for Dennis Quaid lumbering through Smart People, his forehead constantly furrowed in frustration, his lips permanently pursed in a tight bundle of stress. Like the film, he's an uncomfortable mess that's almost impossible to like, the central character in a sea of socially retarded, emotionally vacant intellectuals. Like one of the characters he lectures his students about, Quaid plays a curmudgeon, a "monument to pedantry."
Meet Lawrence Wetherhold, a Carnegie Mellon professor who thinks he wants to be head of the literature department as he also tries to get a snoozer of a manuscript published. It doesn't help that he abhors talking to his students--Lawrence does anything he can to get out of office hour chats, and refuses to learn anyone's name. His self-absorbed nature spills over into his home life, where he's still drowning in depression after the death of his wife.
He's now taken care of by 17-year-old daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who has a never-ending eye roll of disdain tattooed on her face. She's another asshole with an inflated sense of self-importance ("People like you and me don't need to compensate!"), too preoccupied with her SAT studies and her duties with the Young Republicans, Model U.N. and National Honor Society--all part of an effort to help get into a good school.
Both have a distant relationship with son/brother James (Ashton Holmes)--a college student trying to escape the family pattern of bitterness--and both bemoan the arrival of Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a job-hopping slacker who tries to loosen up Vanessa and Lawrence ("[We're] middle-aged, can't get along with women, should be gay."). When a trauma-induced seizure lands Lawrence in the hospital, he doesn't recognize Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who switched career paths after getting less-than-encouraging words from her professor. Her longtime crush is soon revealed, and Lawrence uncomfortably asks her out on a date--a budding relationship that drives a stick further up Vanessa's acerbic ass: "Dad, if there are any romantic inklings, you're simply not ready...socio-sexual mores have really shifted, and let's not forget he stigma attached to widowers."
That kind of affected speech permeates every frame of Smart People. It's no surprise that the movie shares a producer (Michael London) and an actor (Church) with the slightly overrated Sideways, another film about boorish snobs who like to wine...oops, I mean whine. I have to disagree with first-time director Noam Murro, who says in the bonus features: "You have to love these people, even though they seem unpleasant at times." The script (from first-timer Mark Jude Poirier) simply doesn't have enough heart to warrant any concern, and it's also not nearly as clever as the characters think they are. Many lines ("You have the IQ of a dumbass ant", "Even cretins win the lottery sometime", "Self-absorption's overrated") are more smart ass than smart, and others are about as witty as wallpaper:
- Lawrence: "I prefer language to be precise."
- Janet: "Then you should have said 'I prefer precise language', not 'I prefer language to be precise.'"
The film hinges its hopes on a variety of relationships, none of which feel authentic. Worst of all is Janet's supposed infatuation with Lawrence, who behaves terribly in his interactions with her (their first two dinners are painful)--you won't buy for a second that she could hold an ounce of interest. But Parker's character isn't given much depth (she brings a poorly graded paper to their dinner to shove in Lawrence's face)--her struggle is only hinted at and never explored. More awkward is the Chuck/Vanessa subplot, an odd sidetrack that is played more awkwardly than necessary.
The film would have been far more interesting if told through the eyes of James, the one character who injects some soul into the story. But he's under-used, relegated to a negligible role in this carnival of pretension. Vanessa speaks much louder and carries a bigger stick, her cruelty overshadowing any sense of compassion. Everyone here is combative, making some late developments harder to accept. There are a few laughs, although the biggest one for me (involving a cake) was spoiled in the trailer.
It's a shame, because the cast here is a dream. Quaid does a great job of being pretty dislikeable (complete with subtly believable body language), probably too good a job. And that's the film's biggest problem--it's far too obsessed with its own ennui, spending too much time reveling in minutiae to create anything truly meaningful.
Presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, Smart People has an appropriately muted color scheme that adds to its drab demeanor. The film feels like a cold autumn day in the '70s, frequently bathed in browns. There are no vibrant visuals or sharp lines (a few shots are a tad too soft), which seems like a wise choice given the material.
A 5.1 surround track leads the way, and strikes a solid balance of crisp dialogue and subtle effects. Nothing overpowers you, and it shouldn't. The few noticeable rear-channel effects did a nice job of enhancing the film's cold atmosphere. Also included English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Leading the way is an audio commentary with director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier, a laid-back listen that is sometimes too slow and detached. They talk about the "emotional hibernation" of the lead character and the film's themes: "What we tried to do is deal with some heavy issues of depression and loneliness in a very light way," says Murro, noting that the entire shoot was 29 days (!). "There's no real trajectory; the way we always viewed it is that the trajectory is very minimal...that's the whole point of it: The journey that Lawrence makes is a very subtle one, and to me that was always the interesting part of it." They also talk about casting ("Everything that Ellen did in Juno she stole from us," jokes Murro, nothing he hoped her success with the hit spilled over to Smart People), and the Pittsburgh flavor of the film, helped by the location shots at Carnegie Mellon: "It's a unique looking campus," Poirier says. "It doesn't look like a generic Ivy League campus, neo-gothic architecture and all that."
Up next is The Smartest People (16:28), a collection of interviews with the cast and filmmakers. It's not too fluffy, but won't do much to make give you a new appreciation of the film--it pretty much highlights its downfalls. "There's just this anger and this passive-aggressive bitterness and this, like, child's play in the way they interact with one another," notes Page, calling Vanessa "an arrogant and angry human being." Poirier notes that Vanessa "is the character who reminds me the most of myself in that she's miserable, and she uses her brain as a defense mechanism."
Nine deleted scenes (9:56) follow, and it says something that all would fit in perfectly with the finished film--they're about as equally boring. You also get Not So Smart (2:03), a collection of bloopers that aren't too funny, although it is amusing to hear Page chide Thomas Haden Church after he flubs a line: "You got nominated for an Oscar?!" (this was filmed before Page's nominated turn in Juno). Rounding out the package are trailers for other releases and the upcoming theatrical release Blindness, which you can see for free at a participating theater by using a coupon code (by October 31, 2008) included on an insert.
If watching a bunch of self-absorbed, emotionally vacant and whiny intellectuals bicker with each other sounds like fun, have at it. This film has a dream cast, but the characters and the script are far too detached to enjoy, and not nearly as clever as they think. It aims for keen observation on damaged people, but drowns in vapid waters. Still, Smart People has a few moments of mild amusement, and I can't completely dismiss the cast. Rent It.