Saturday, September 12, 2009

DVD Review: Smart People

I have to say that I never had a professor like Lawrence Wetherhold (great pretentious name) during the process of getting my bachelors in English Literature. And thank God. Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid in wonderfully smug performance) is one of those professors that are so self-involved he can’t even remember student’s names who have been in his class consecutive terms. First time director Noam Murro and first time writer Mark Poirier understand that when dealing with pretension caricature has a tendency to mutate your comedic intentions; both Murro and Poirier sidestep the pitfalls of movies like this and instead of hitting me over the head with the obviousness of their satire, they reminded me more of the subdued, cerebral satire of academia found in films like Sideways and The Squid and the Whale. Smart People is not a perfect movie, but it has its moments and deserves mention next to the wittiest of intellectually dysfunctional family satires.

Lawrence is having trouble getting a book about postmodern something or other published, and his dreadful, dreary existence is alleviated by the appearance of his adopted brother Chuck’s (the always wonderful and breath-of-fresh-air Thomas Haden Church) surprise visit. Lawrence doesn’t want his life to change, though, and it isn’t until a stupid attempt to get his car from an impound lot goes awry resulting in a concussion that he has to rely on Chuck to chauffeur him around for 6 weeks. While at the hospital Lawrence is smitten with his doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of his – of course he doesn’t realize that until he’s told by the neurologist.

The Wetherhold family is not the happiest, and there are some great moments that occur around the dinner table where little by little new insights about the family are brought to light. For instance Lawrence’s kids Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James’ (Ashton Holmes) brother-sister relationship, which is icy at best as Vanessa (and her dad) look down on James because he doesn’t strive to be their definition of a “smart person”. James goes to an art school and easily fools his dad into believing credit card charges from a bar are actually charges for art books at a book store. Murro is making an obvious commentary here that Lawrence is intelligent, but he’s not that smart. However, there’s a sad reality that occurs late in the movie where James has a poem published in The New Yorker, and then it appears that because of this Lawrence has a new found interest in his son.

Vanessa obviously cares for her dad as she plays house mom in between school and young Republican meetings; she cooks and cleans and does laundry because she feel she has to pick up the slack left by her mothers death. However, with Chuck’s arrival things begin to change as the two share a joint, watch Spanish soap opera, and go to a bar to celebrate her getting into Stanford. It appears that Vanessa’s icy exterior is beginning to thaw, but then something happens at the bar with her and Chuck that changes things.

Naturally a relationship blossoms between Lawrence and Janet, but it doesn’t go in the directions you think it will at first. Lawrence isn’t a nice person, and I like the way that Murro just shows Janet coming over for Christmas dinner after having second thoughts about sleeping with Lawrence instead of showing us the cliché scene where they argue about their problems. However, this particular storyline is the most banal thing about Smart People, and it takes up a good chuck of the story. There’s absolutely zero chemistry between Quaid and Parker and I felt like it was trying to do the Sideways thing where you have an intelligent outsider go out of his realm to win over a smart and sexy woman that is out of his league.

There’s a lot of stuff to admire here: the way Murro lets the intelligence of his characters act as both their best quality and what makes them so unappealing. He understands that the wacky adopted uncle character could have sunk the movie, and instead with the aide of Church, makes Chuck into the most likable and memorable character of the movie (he’s also in some way the smartest), instead of being an annoying, loud-mouthed blowhard like so many of his character types are.

Which brings me to perhaps Murro’s greatest achievement: the first time director handles the subplot of Lawrence’s deceased wife with a subdued clarity. There aren’t false moments or cheesy epiphanies, here; no, instead what we get are subtle clues as to what probably happened to Lawrence’s wife, and Murro installs a nice little motif throughout the film that leads us to this assumption as we see throughout various scenes that Lawrence refuses to ride in the passenger seat of a car because he gets nauseous.

Dennis Quaid is a really good casting choice as Lawrence. He plays him with that smugness that is laughable, but scary at the same time. His intellectual-bully exterior softens a little bit by the end of the film, but it was great to see nice gut Dennis Quaid from all those Disney sports movies play mean. Thomas Haden Church steals the show, though…just as he did in Sideways. Every scene he enters isn’t a showy moment for him to distract us from the dower scholarly malaise that envelops the Wetherhold house – in fact Chuck just kind of stands around on the periphery a lot of the time, eats his food and minds his own business, occasionally offering up the only sane bit of advice in the film. It’s the type of role we’re going to start associating with Church, and he’s perfect in it.

Smart People could have easily devolved into a ridiculous parody; instead it has a keen eye and sharp perspective on how the aesthete operates. Church provides a few laugh out loud moments, but the bulk of the humor is cerebral -- where 30 minutes after the fact, still thinking about the movie, you laugh. One of those moments is where Lawrence is going to change a grade to a ten year old paper that Janet’s written (this coming after a botched first date where all he did was talk about how smart he was), and in a hilarious moment where convention tells us he will change from a C to an A to show the err of his ways, deliver it to her at her work and win her back…he changes it from a C to a B-.

The film definitely has some flaws (like the whole Janet character, even though it leads to some semi-touching moments of realization for Lawrence, and some unnecessary added punch lines to scenes that should have remained subtle), but overall I think it succeeds at poking fun at the pedantic, know-it-all types who take themselves waaaay too seriously. Murro is saying that it’s okay to be smart, in fact it’s good (and encouraged) to be smart (you have to be in order to understand some of the jokes in this film), but you definitely need some balance in your life. It’s the appropriate message for a film that is really hard on its main character. I liked Smart People, a lot; at only 93 minutes it hardly felt like it robbed me of my time, and even if I can’t totally buy that ending, it’s forgivable because it’s an impressive debut for this writer and director who show an amazing amount of restraint and comedic instinct for first time filmmakers. I'm excited to see what comes from their next collaboration which is due out in 2010.


  1. I saw this about a year ago and had to re-read my review to recall what I wrote. Not a good sign, but I evidently thought it was a middlingly positive effort -- a "57" on the Metacritic scale to the quantitatively minded. Liked Church, found Page half-unconvincing and half-redeemable (following my irrational loathing of Juno), though Quaid miscast but sort of enjoyed him anyway. A watchable enough comedy played in a refreshing low key. As far as Pittsburgh-based movies go (fast becoming its own genre), it lags behind Wonder Boys and Adventureland.

  2. Craig:

    Yes, middling might be a good way of classifying this movie. As I stated in my review, I don't think this is a great movie, but for a first feature the writer and director show great control of the material. This is the type of movie where if you happen upon it on premium cable you don't mind sticking around and seeing how it plays out -- and like I said, it's a safe 93 minutes. There were some scenes that I really enjoyed, even if the look of the film (and the trailers) made me think the filmmakers really want to make their version of Sideways.

    Yeah, I probably won't remember what I wrote about this movie a year from now, either; however, at this moment it's a decent option for a DVD rental.

    I totally agree with you about Wonder Boys (one of the best films made abut academia and writing) which I thought of as I was watching Smart People. I haven't seen Adventureland yet, but it's coming up in my Netflix queue.

    Thanks for the comments, Craig.

  3. The problem I had with this film was its central conceit that even though Lawrence and his family are very intelligent, they are socially inept. The problem is, as presented, these characters are annoying and smugly superior, looking down on anyone who doesn’t display the same level of smarts. Chuck is the one notable exception. Otherwise, I found the rest of this dysfunctional family to be unlikeable and one wonders why anyone would want to spend time with them? They are all depressed about their dreary lives which results in a rather dull film, IMO. As the previous comment pointed out, WONDER BOYS and ADVENTURELAND are much more successful at mining this territory.

  4. J.D.:

    I didn't think this family was anymore annoying than Giamatti's character in Sideways. True, people of high intelligence aren't always this socially inept, but I didn't mind Murro stretching it a bit to make his point...just as Baumbach did in The Squid in the Wail. Satire often has to go the extremes to make a point, and I think that Smart People has good moments of satire in it.

    You're right, it's not nearly on the same level as Wonder Boys, but not much is. And I REALLY need to see Adventureland...come on Netflix hurry up!

  5. For me, the best moments were with Thomas Haden Church, who stole every scene he was in.