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