Smart People (2008) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: nudity, sexuality, language and a scene of drug use
Running time: 95 min
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti
Director: Noam Murro
Screenplay: Mark Jude Poirier
Still in a life crisis after the loss of his beloved wife, Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid, American Dreamz) has become a self-absorbed jackass. No one knows this more than his children, James (Holmes, A History of Violence) and Vanessa (Page, Juno), who have trouble adjusting to new people on their own. A back injury humbles him, rendering him unable to legally drive for six months, now forced to rely on his family to get him around. Lawrence's life faces upheaval, though not necessarily of the bad variety, as his doctor (Parker, The Family Stone), who happens to be a former student of his, reveals she has had a thing for him since her days in school. The two start an uneasy romance, as he is too stuck in his ways to be an adequate companion. Meanwhile, his adopted brother Chuck (Church, Spider-Man 3) is left to take care of precocious teen Vanessa during a period where she thinks she knows it all, including leaving the nest once and for all to go to college somewhere else.
Not a long film by any means, clocking in at a standard 95 minutes, but too long given the material, first-time director Noam Murro applies a very lackadaisical approach to this serio-comedy, padding scenes out with excess. Scenes of walking, getting in a car, or pretty much anything else are thrown in, perhaps to beef up the run time, and what should have been a smart and witty comedy languishes in plodding plot development and shallow, stereotypical characterizations. Only the quality of the actors manages to give the necessary spark to the screenplay by first-timer Mark Poirier to keep the material from imploding from a lack of structure and interesting story points.
Quaid isn't nearly as effective as Jack Nicholson in a similar role in As Good as it Gets, but anchors the film well enough, coming across as an arrogant SOB with a sympathetic side underneath. One problem is that the romance manufactured between Wetherhold and his doctor, Janet (Parker), never comes across as genuine. The two would-be lovebirds seem like they only want to be with each other because it is slightly less dull than being alone. The film's more interesting moments come between the more engaging character actors Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church, who play Lawrence's neo-conservative 17-year-old daughter and his maladjusted, burnt-out brother, respectively. They provide ample comedy to make the lulls tolerable, though many of their scenes are superfluous to Lawrence's emergence from his cocoon of misery. This is the second film I remember in recent years starring Sarah Jessica Parker (Failure to Launch being the other) where the supporting characters prove more interesting than the main players, to the point that the audience, as well as the filmmakers, would rather follow them to the detriment of the overall narrative.
I suppose that the irony of the title is that intelligent people don't have the answers to happiness, perhaps miserable because they lack the ability to be blissfully ignorant. It could also be due to the expectations that, given the intelligence to be whatever they want in life, they should always be the best at what they do. That sounds like a smart foundation from which to build an interesting story on, but Smart People feels more like a stay-cation version of Little Miss Sunshine, sans the laughs, characterizations, and clever developments. What we're presented here are several miserable people who try to find happiness in the company of other miserable people; it's not hard to figure out why they can't find any. Although the film ends with a hopeful note about putting the past behind and building upon happiness for the future, the downsides of pat characterizations is that we never get the sense that the burdens they carry and flaws in their character will ever allow them anything more then a temporary lift up out of the abyss of misanthropy.
©2008 Vince Leo