Movie Review: Smart People
By Matthew Huntley
June 4, 2008

This furniture showroom should have beer and a plasma tv.

Somewhere within Smart People there's a smarter, funnier and more emotional story about a family learning to be happy again. When the movie is about behavior and human nature, it shines and it's easy to imagine a small masterpiece at work. But there are other moments that cry out for a script re-write because you feel they only exist as the means to an end. These are the moments where you can picture the screenwriter muttering, "I just need something here," moments where you suspect the movie isn't flowing naturally.

That's not to say we don't end up with a smart, funny and emotional movie, but it's hard not to think afterwards that some obvious changes would have made it stronger and tighter. This is a movie many people will like and believe to be good, but it's also one that will leave them thinking, If only the movie had [fill in the blank]...

The story centers on the Wetherholds, an upper middle class family who haven't experienced joy since Mrs. Wetherhold died some years ago. She was the wife of Lawrence (Dennis Quaid) and mother of Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes). Though we never see Mrs. Wetherhold, we sense it was her who prevented the family from becoming, as Vanessa puts it, so "fragile."

Lawrence is a professor of English literature at Carnegie Mellon University, where James also attends because his tuition ends up being free. Every morning, the depressed and out of shape Lawrence, with a belly that protrudes over his khakis, parks across two spaces, forgets the names of his students and manually adjusts his clock to get out of office hours. The man appears tired and scruffy and rolls his eyes when his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) shows up to perform tricks with the copy machine. Chuck's arrival can only mean one of two things: he needs money or a place to stay; or maybe it's both. What little life and ambition Lawrence does have comes from his wanting to become head of the English department or selling his manuscript to a publishing house.

One night, Lawrence's car is towed and taken to the campus impound lot. He argues with a security guard, a former student ("You gave me a D"), who won't allow Lawrence to get his car without a receipt. The bright professor climbs over the fence and, while trying to escape, falls over and has a seizure. At the emergency room, he's cared for by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), also a former student, who takes a bittersweet liking to the guy, probably the rekindling of her schoolgirl crush. Because he's had a seizure, Lawrence's license is suspended for six months, so it's a good thing Chuck is around to play chauffeur.

Expectedly, Lawrence and Janet start dating, which Vanessa is none too happy about, probably because she knows there's a possibility her father could start smiling again and thus leave her even more singled out. When Lawrence tells her "You seem unhappy," she replies, "You've always been my role model."

Vanessa is young and extremely intelligent. As a typical overachiever, she's trying her best to score a perfect score on the SATs and has just been accepted to Stanford, but her arrogance and condescending attitude towards her peers have made her sarcastic, bitter and lonely. She starts hanging out with Chuck for comfort and submits to things like marijuana and beer, eventually taking his affection one step too far.

Smart People has been directed by Noam Munro, who displays an assured pacing and professionalism for his first film. He adds subtle details to his characters' world that find the right kind of ambience - the dark and dreary streets of the Wetherhold's suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood; the creaky wooden floors in their house; and salt and snow stains on their cars. There was something cold and raw about the locations. The score was also uncommonly soothing; it's not sad or upbeat but has a ceaseless rhythm to suggest, no matter how forlorn or bleak things sometimes seem to be, life always goes on.

The movie's shortcomings, and there are quite a few, lie with the Mark Poirier's screenplay, which leaves too many aspects underdeveloped, most notably the character of James, who's given a fraction of screen time compared to Vanessa despite his character possessing just as much inner conflict. He's the one guy we know hardly anything about other than he's semi-depressed and channels his emotions through writing. When the New Yorker buys one of his poems, he says to his Dad, "So now you're interested in what I'm doing?" Why didn't the screenplay flush out their relationship? Or perhaps it did but it didn't make it into the final cut.

James is secretly dating another student (Camille Mana), who happens to be on the Lawrence's English department committee. Why is it so important this relationship be kept a secret, and why does nothing ever come of it before the end of the movie?

Lawrence and Janet's relationship is also a nebulous one. I never felt like the filmmakers took a position on whether they wanted these people to get together. They don't seem very much in love and the movie spends too much time showing Janet in a contemplative stare about where her life is going.

The ending is also a disappointment because it feels thrown in merely as a dramatic device to tie all the characters together. It didn't feel natural in terms of the story's progression. Nor did I care for Janet's line, "We're smart people," which makes too much of a self-important nod to the movie's title instead of being quietly insightful and reflective.

What works exceptionally well are the film's performances. Quaid, as usual, is sympathetic as the doleful, middle-aged man who refuses to descend into the next phase of his life without a fight. He's had a lot of practice with this kind of role (The Rookie; In Good Company) and he pulls it off like no other actor. Church also stands out as the goofy, pot-smoking brother full of sarcastic remarks. He shares a particularly effective scene with Page that caps of the bumps of their relationship that lets her know, despite her intelligence, she's still a kid who has a lot to learn.

Smart People has some wonderful, genuine scenes spread throughout, and also a couple that made me laugh out loud. But it shares these with others that are more artificial and contrived. Thankfully the dialogue is kept intelligent and the movie sees its characters, more or less, as real people who are capable of speaking intelligently and with sophisticated words. I appreciated how it didn't chastise them for being smart. It's true, these are smart people, but they don't always inhabit the brightest of screenplays.