Sundance Review: Smart People
by Alex Billington
January 26, 2008
Anything with Ellen Page is usually guaranteed to be great, except maybe X-Men 3. Smart People is a surprisingly impressive, remarkably fun, and completely entertaining ensemble comedy. Even though the film is about a professor from Carnegie Mellon University, the college I attended, and was shot on the campus, I wasn't ready for the kind of great dialogue and quirky humor that Smart People is full of. It truly is a smart film with plenty to offer, including Thomas Haden Church's funniest performance since Sideways.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed professor who teaches English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His daughter (Ellen Page) is a perfectionist in her senior year of high school, his son (Ashton Holmes) is a brilliant poet attending CMU, and yet fails to acknowledge either. When he ends up in the hospital, he meets a lovely Doctor named Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) and begins to fall for her, all while his bum brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in with him.
Smart People's strength lies in its great script from Mark Poirier. Although the film is essentially about Wetherhold, the supporting characters, primarily his daughter Vanessa and brother Chuck, fill in any gaps that would have otherwise been left wide open in a boring film. Church's performance as Chuck is spot on, and like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War, is the kind of character who you're waiting for to return to the screen so that you can laugh again. Out of almost any of the movies from Sundance so far, I've probably laughed the most at some of the scenes with Church, and the audience joined in as well. On top of that, Page as Vanessa delivers a strong performance reminiscent of Juno but with a much smarter, and not as quirky, tone.
Smart People is a very solid film from start to finish without too many issues. It connects best with intelligent individuals and won't resonate well with those looking for fluffier Hollywood flare, but if you're in the mood for something smart, funny, and fulfilling, then Smart People it is. I'm certain it will be as pleasant of a surprise for everyone else as it was for me.