Background: Movies are made to entertain the masses, hopefully reaping enough profit for the selected few to make more of them. Each of us have different criteria for what makes a movie worth watching (be it once or many times), some wanting to learn something about life, others needing an adrenaline rush from the endless stream of brainless roller coaster action flicks, and still others wanting something more difficult to pin down (but they'll know it when they see it). Because there are so many target niches, marketing departments work overtime to convince broader audiences that their current release will serve their needs just as well, if not better, than the next movie as they come out to local theaters across the country. If you pay attention, you will note that most of these campaigns are full of misleading quotes, outright lies, and such deception to squeeze out your hard earned cash that it's a wonder any of us take them seriously. That said, I happened upon a selection in the DVD Talk pick list for reviewers that seemed innocuous enough, starring a decent cast and all the signs pointed to my liking it (not least of which was how my fellow reviewers completely avoided this blu-ray version of Smart People (Blu-Ray).
Movie: Smart People is a story about a widower professor at Carnegie Mellon University named Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) that is arguably the last of a dying breed, a professor extremely well versed in literature to the point where he is completely closed to outside opinion. His students rightfully hate him as do his peers on staff, his inability to share his knowledge only one of the many character flaws the man displays with tremendous pride every day. He believes that higher education sold out generations ago, churning out students like mass produced cogs to feed a greater machine rather than inspire deep thought, resulting in student evaluations of his teaching skills that probably shouldn't be printed on a family friendly website. Bitter and self absorbed, Lawrence runs through his routine like clockwork, his sole weakness being for his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), the teenager almost as self important as he is with an intellect to match. Vanessa has assumed the alpha female role in the lives of her family, her brother James (Ashton Holmes) somewhat less socially bankrupt at a meager cost of a few IQ points. As is a regular occurrence in their lives, uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) comes knocking at the door for yet another handout, the adopted brother of Lawrence having been established as frequenting him like an ATM machine. Chuck is outgoing and friendly, possessing enough wit to fend off the bitter verbal attacks of Vanessa and Lawrence but not enough for the burnout to hold a steady job.
Lawrence is in a state of crisis at the opening of the movie though since his latest book has been soundly rejected by all the publishers that he used to have at his feet. He is also appointed to head the committee to find a department chair, a position of authority and power that he has long coveted himself, and the gradual state of decay he has noticed is wearing him down. Vanessa is hated and hateful at the same time, her need to latch onto something greater to fulfill a social role resulting in her volunteering for the local Young Republicans chapter as she studies to ace her SATs at the cost of anything meaningful in her bleak existence. James shows up in the movie a handful of times as the foil of his nuclear family but is relegated to the background far too often to be considered a major character other than as an example of someone able to move on with his life, unlike dad and sister. Without spoiling too much of the movie, drunken Lawrence reaps what he sowed as he attempts to regain some property from his towed car, resulting in an accident that lands him in the hospital with a mandatory 6 month hold on his license. His need for transportation is such that he hires Chuck to drive him around, neither James nor Vanessa wanting the position, the spot lasting far longer when the insurance company refuses to pay for a professional chauffer. His emergency room doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), takes a shine to him for unknown reasons and they soon start dating (with disastrous results). She is a man killer type that rejects any she goes out with, the reasoning only touched upon in the movie but enough to set the stage. Janet and Vanessa show appropriate cattiness towards one another too, the movie excelling at showing the negativity of modern cinema without any of the redeeming qualities most people buy tickets to see.
Chuck reaches out to Vanessa so as to keep her from becoming a corporate zombie Republican, doing his best to corrupt her with the help of substances (legal and illegal) and that sets in motion her desperate cry for his affection while James starts banging another student (Camille Mana as an outspoken student currently taking his fathers' literature class, the gal looking most attractive in her satin red undies) in an effort to avoid the pitiful situation the others are trapped in. As book smart as they are, none of the leads has a clue about modern life outside their tiny niches, Vanessa seemingly openly shocked when she asks one of her peers what it's like to "be stupid" and getting answered back with "like sitting by yourself at lunch every day" with a nonchalance that only the working class could fully appreciate. Haden is likable enough, far more than he was as the jerk in Sidelines and essentially steals every scene he is in while Parker and Quaid, the focal points of the movie, ramble on endlessly in such a manner that elicited more pity than interest. Page shined from time to time but her character was given a role that proved devoid of humanity and her motivations for her uncle's love unclear. Mix these half thought out characters into a giant vat and you have what amounts to a narcissistic screenplay directed by a novice into oblivion for a decidedly small audience of film festival types more than as a commercially viable project. It fails as a comedy largely because the comedic bits were tempered with ill intent and as a drama it almost self implodes on the lack of follow up by the threads started, and repeatedly abandoned, as much as how truly nasty the characters were. If you want to be entertained, look elsewhere but this was one I would rate as a Skip It.
Picture: Smart People (Blu-Ray) was presented in 2.40:1 widescreen color in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec with a bitrate largely hovering around the 24.7 Mbps mark. I could see the pores in Quaid's face, the worry lines in Parker's brow, the individual whiskers in Haden's goatee, and the luminescent skin of Page throughout the production in such a way that I doubt very much if a standard definition release could approach it. The tones of the movie were somehow muted, as if on purpose, to show how mundane the life of the leads were in proportion to the rest of the world (almost as if the director were projecting their mindset onto the canvass of the screen). There was not a lot of compression noise or moiré but I did see some edge enhancement a few of you fuss about. In terms of composition, there were a lot of talking head shots that made me think a degree of importance was assigned to each character according to how much their heads were cropped (the more cropping, the more important) or how many close ups they were given. Haden, Parker, and Quaid looked almost as if in a state of perpetual windburn too, but this wasn't a "feel good" movie so I suppose it wouldn't make sense to further exploit the downer characters with happier surroundings.
Sound: The main audio track was presented in English 5.1 uncompressed PCM with a sampling rate of 48 kHz and 6.9 Mbps bitrate (I thought lossless tracks varied according to the need of the material rather than follow a set rate). As there were no special effects going on, the vocals were dominant this time with a decently mixed in score and some rare ambient sounds when the cast were outside. There was some solid directionality to the talking heads and the score was suitable enough but all of it was presented in a subdued fashion as if in support of the visual details, lacking any depth or breadth to speak of but sounding a lot like it was all added in post production rather than captured as the movie was shot (sounding kind of fake).
Extras: The most obvious extra was the audio commentary between director Naom Murro and writer Mark Poirier. I listened to about half of it when I fell asleep, their ponderings about the characters they had hoped to breathe life into sounding like a cheerleading effort where they were almost apologetic about certain shortcomings of the movie (though never about those that worked on it). There was then a making of feature that gave most of the main people here a chance to describe what they were doing and how they fit into the rambling story. The bunch of deleted scenes were unpolished and rarely added anything to my understanding of the movie, bloopers, the trailers limited but decent enough, and the Easter Egg of the cast at the Sundance Film Festival (sans Page though Haden read off a delightful email message purportedly from her that had more with than the rest of the movie). The Easter Egg could be found by cycling through the extras screen, continue past the obvious ones, and then it will light up. My copy also had a voucher for the upcoming release of Blindness that I gave to another reviewer to appreciate.
Final Thoughts: Smart People might have been tentatively about a saddened old jerk of a professor locked into a pattern of mourning for his lost wife trying to break free of the past but it really did not go anywhere. There was no obvious chemistry between any of the performers and the writing seemed to be best when writing the characters into corners before dropping those lines of thoughts in random fashion. The meanness of the characters alone made me never want to see any of them again and the revelations of growth the director was fond of pointing out in the commentary were so obscure that I doubt anyone will care to seek them out. In short, Smart People (Blu-Ray) wasn't an arty-farty movie for the self pretentious to hate over dinner, it was one best avoided altogether as half baked, half cocked, and half as good as it should have been.