Ken's Review: Smart People - One of the Best Films of the Year
by Ken Evans
April 14, 2008
There are some movies that take me a bit to really think about and ponder over. That was the case with There Will Be Blood. It wasn't until the morning after that it had really sunk in and made its impact. Then there are the films that grab me and excite me the second the credits start rolling. That's my favorite feeling. The feeling of loving a film so much the moment it is over that you want to stay for the next showing because you don't want the feeling to end. I felt that once already this year after watching In Bruges. Thankfully I didn't have to wait too long to feel it again - this time with Smart People.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a literature professor at the local university who is perceived by his students as a pompous self-absorbed jerk. He is father to Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page), an extremely smart self-absorbed student hell bent on being the best in everything, as well as James (Ashton Holmes), a student at the same university that he teaches at. Due to falling from a security fence and a stress-related seizure, Lawrence meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who he ends up becoming romantically interested in. Unfortunately for Lawrence, he is unable to drive and ends up having to take in his dead beat adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to chauffeur him around town. Personality clashes and relationship problems turn into life changing experiences that everyone is able to learn from.
What really caught me off guard were the performances. Going into it I thought I had all of the actors figured out. I imagined Dennis Quaid being the same as always - good but never that great. I pictured Ellen Page as being the exact same character from Juno - quick to respond with clever little comments. Sarah Jessica Parker never brings much range to the table anyway and I didn't expect anything different in Smart People. Thomas Hayden Church, although not amazing in Spider-Man 3, has really impressed me lately in films like Spanglish and Sideways. He was really the only one I thought would steal the show.
Half-way thorough the film I was amazed with how wrong my assumptions turned out to be. Dennis Quaid blew me away with his devotion to his character. Never once did he break the appearance of a socially dysfunctional, arrogant college professor. He was able to say so much about his character through his performance alone. This is the mark of a truly great actor. I'm just sad it has taken this long to get this out of someone I have always really liked. Perhaps this is a new start for Quiad, although I don't think the upcoming G.I. Joe, in which he plays General Hawk, will require the same devotion to character that Smart People did. I definitely think this was the best performance of Quaid's career.
From what I gather, Ellen Page actually filmed Smart People before Juno. I didn't know this until after I saw it, but it makes a lot of sense. This is not the same character we see in Juno, although there are similarities. It isn't the same funny, quirky role that she played as the teenage pregnant girl. Instead, she is an extremely smart and boring girl who unfortunately has become a clone of her father. She lacks social skills and any sense of fun, unlike her character Juno. Yes, the way she delivers some lines reminds me a bit of Juno but that really can't be helped since it is the same actress. Her personality will always shine and my reservations of whether or not she could play anything other then Juno have definitely been taken away.
Not much needs to be said about Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker. Based off of this film and Church's few previous ones, he has proven to be an actor that I will go see no matter the movie. Parker was better in this then most anything else I've seen her in. She thankfully showed a bit more range, portraying a lot through her performance like Quaid. She was good but I wouldn't say great - surprisingly better - would be the best way to put it.
Mention must be made of the performance of young actor and personal friend Paul Huber, who is the start of all the problems for the Wetherhold family. Huber plays a College student named Ben Onufrey who works for campus security in charge of manning the impound lot. At the very beginning of the film, Lawrence's car get impounded for a parking violation. He tries to get it out but is stopped by Onufrey who refuses to let him have it until the fine is paid. Not taking no for an answer, Lawrence climbs the fence and falls injuring himself, which ultimately leads to meeting Parker and causing Church to have to move in. Huber makes another appearance later in the film and was hilarious. I really hope we get to see this young actor make some more appearances in other upcoming movies.
More than anything this is a film about its characters. It is a deep look into a family that is drowning in the academic world. The catalyst for change is the adopted brother, who Church portrays, that is completely different from everyone else. He challenges them to have fun and take risks. He fights against their planned out, boring existence by introducing chaos and unpredictability. Although he definitely isn't aware that he is the bringer of change, he turns out to be one none the less.
The beauty of this movie is how subtle everything is. From its humor to the character development, everything takes a bit of thought from the audience to really make an impact. You can't just coast by in this film and expect everything to be explained step-by-step. All the pieces are there for us to understand the characters, but the writers and director left it up to us to put together. We aren't given much of the past history of the family, but through each actors' performances we can understand so much about why they are the way they are. The audience should be able to understand why Quaid is so distant from everyone, why Page has no friends and is protective of her father, and why Quaid's son James doesn't like anyone. Like the title, this is a film for smart people who want to think through a movie instead of just watch it.
Tying with In Bruges and Assassination of a High School President, Smart People has become one of my favorite films of 2008. Incredible acting, a wonderfully complex story, and a great soundtrack made this an amazing film. I would whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a heart warming story of a family that loves each other but still has problems. I would never say it is a depressing movie, but instead a story filled with realism. These are characters who have hope to better themselves instead of making it seem like they could never become perfect. Rush out to see this one, definitely the best film in theaters right now.