Smart People

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This review was written for the festival screening of "Smart People." 

Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- With a title such as "Smart People," this satiric film revolving around academia signals that its characters may be too smart for their own good. Intelligence plus too much specialized knowledge can leave people incapable of coping with life and frustratingly disconnected from family and friends. Come to think of it, what friends? But there's always family and two debuting filmmakers, novelist Mark Jude Poirier and award-winning commercial director Noam Murro, locate their comic mischief in the very core of family life.

The smart casting of Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and "Juno's" hot young star Ellen Page in, seemingly, tailor-made roles, gives Miramax plenty of marketing hooks for its April 11 release. Reminiscent of the recent Sundance hit "The Squid and the Whale" in its depiction of a burnt-out academic and off-campus family disruptions, "Smart People" should attract similar adult audiences with the caveat that the smugness of some characters may be an initial turn-off.

For students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is a horror show: An acerbic widower who has lost interest in even his own specialty, Victorian literature, he is self-absorbed, demanding, arrogant, contemptuous of his students and grouchy as hell. He doesn't warm up one bit at home; nevertheless, he is a role model for his young daughter Vanessa (Page), who is already as friendless and conceited as dad. She is even a Young Republican. Older brother James (Ashton Holmes) lives in a dorm, presumably to escape the poisonous atmosphere at home and to keep his many secrets.

Into these lives come two "corrupters," characters who will undermine the pomposity of father and daughter and seduce them back to something resembling normalcy. A head trauma, the result of his own pig-headedness, sends the professor to ER where his doctor, Janet (Parker), is a former student who once had a crush on him. Naturally, he fails to remember her. Crashing the Wetherhold household without an invitation is Lawrence's financially challenged brother Chuck (Church), a permanent adolescent whom Lawrence is careful to always refer to as his "adopted" brother.

The chief disappointment in Poirtier's screenplay is that while the affects these two will have on the family is wholly predictable, the writer never finds a way to trip up audience expectations. There's a hint of this in Vanessa's misreading of her uncle's seduction of her but mostly the dramatic course is too steady and true for surprises.

What exactly motivates Janet to rescue Lawrence from his self-destruction? She may have had a schoolgirl crush once, but she's a physician now, surely with more life experiences, and all the professor ever gave her was a C and a rude remark.

One would like to see what she sees him but Quaid doesn't make that easy. He's not a warm and fuzzy burn-out like Michael Douglas' character in "The Wonder Boys." That chip on his shoulder has given Lawrence a permanent slouch and the caustic manner feels like less like a facade than his real personality. Clearly though, something died within him when his wife passed. He even still hangs on to her wardrobe.

You do see why Uncle Chuck would take on the Vanessa reclamation project. She's too young to be so old. He wants to instill in her a rebellious streak and outlaw spirit before it's too late. Theirs is the more interesting relationship, which could've stood more development: It needed to go beyond smoking weed and underage drinking at a bar. And Page as an actress is too much a free spirit to be completely believable as a Young Republican.

On the other hand, Poirier is a master at dialogue. His script crackles with sharp lines and he gives all his scenes a splendid comic undertow. His characters arrive at their epiphanies -- despite Lawrence's denial he even had one -- with intelligence and logic.

For his part, Murro allows actors plenty of leeway to develop richly idiosyncratic characters, and for a commercial maker he shows a noble resistance to selling his story with slick images and quick cuts. He paces scenes well and lets the emotions filter through with no undue emphasis or contrivance. This is a solid feature debut for Murro.

Cinematographer Toby Irwin and designer Patti Podesta make a campus film that for once feels like one. They superbly use the real locales and smartly dress sets in ways that suit the autumnal tones of the color scheme.

SMART PEOPLE
Miramax Films
Groundswell Prods.
Credits:
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Jude Poirier
Producer: Bridget Johnson, Michael Costigan, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea
Director of photography: Toby Irwin
Production designer: Patti Podesta
Music: Nuno Bettencourt
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Editors: Robert Frazen, Yana Gorskaya
Cast:
Lawrence Wetherhold: Dennis Quaid
Janet: Sarah Jessica Parker
Chuck: Thomas Haden Church
Vanessa: Ellen Page
James: Ashton Holmes
Running time -- 93 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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