Guest Review: Smart People - Doesn't Quite Make the Grade
by Alex Billington
April 11, 2008
The following review is written by friend and contributing writer Mike Goldsmith. Mike is an award-winning writer and professional musician currently living in Montreal, Canada.
Following in the footsteps of movies like Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, Smart People is the latest in what seems to be a popular new genre of films for the Urban Outfitters crowd, the "sort-of indie dramatic comedy." But instead of Zach Braff or teen pregnancies, we get Dennis Quaid and the woeful world of academia. Smart People attempts to examine the subtle tragedies among relationships of upper-class individuals who appear to have everything figured out... but does it succeed?
The movie centers on Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a pretentious and absent-minded English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Although Lawrence is an expert on Victorian-era Literature, he is unable to cultivate meaningful relationships with his son (Ashton Holmes) and daughter (Ellen Page), and is universally known as a "dickhead" across campus. After falling off a fence at a car impound lot, Lawrence suffers a "trauma-induced" seizure and is attended to by Maxim's unsexiest-doctor alive, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), who just happens to be his former student. Add all this to an unexpected visit from his adopted pot-smoking brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and we have a formula for a rousing comedy that is realistically dramatic, thought-provoking and poignant... right!? Bueller?
Unfortunately for the audience, only mild hilarity ensues, and we're left watching a film that never fully crystallizes into anything truly meaningful. Written by Mark Poirier, Smart People feels more like a condensed TV miniseries and tries to squeeze in one too many emotional wallops, all the while lacking the necessary character development and believability for us to really be affected. Oftentimes the characters act irritably and irrationally for no particular reason other than to further the plot, which detracts from the film's integrity as a drama. Not to mention that every single transition is accompanied by gentle acoustic guitar strumming, cheapening the effect with overuse and making each scene feel more emotional than it really is (by the end of the movie you'll want to smash that hipster's guitar). This adds up to a movie that can't quite support the impact it hopes to make.
The acting is quite good all around, with Quaid comfortably wearing a perma-scowl throughout and Haden Church providing the comic relief as his loveable dim-witted brother. Sarah Jessica Parker is passable as Janet, though you get the feeling that any number of actresses could of filled the role. The chemistry between Quaid and Parker is questionable, but they manage to stumble along to the finish line.
Donning only gaudy v-neck sweaters and matching turtlenecks, Ellen Page reprises her role as a sharp-tongued smart-alecky teen, and plays well off Quaid and Church, bringing a much-needed sense of emotional believability. She carries the movie with her only credible subplot as Vanessa, the overachieving yet underappreciated daughter of Lawrence, who is tortured by her constant need for perfection as well as her pseudo-incestuous love for Chuck. As both Lawrence and Chuck slowly push her out of their lives, we actually identify with her character's emotional state because it's actually understandable.
Overall, Smart People isn't bad by any means, it's just not that good either. At times it seems more like a vehicle for its indie acoustic soundtrack than an inspiring drama, and you'll walk out feeling like you learned more than you actually did.