Directed by Noam Murro
The story goes: renowned commercial director Noam Murro was approached to make his feature film debut with The Ring Two. Murro, after much consideration, turned it down, and decided to introduce himself to the film world with Smart People. Not having seen The Ring Two, I couldn't really say giving up one for the other was a good decision, but I can say that Murro's first film does struggle with a contrived plot. The film's charm, though, comes from it's wonderful, star-studded cast.
The story is about Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed father of two, who teaches (well, kind of) English at a university. He's become a crusty curmudgeon, judging his students before even meets them, citing that students today do not have the right amount of passion for literature to properly digest his grumpy teaching methods. His son, James (Ashton Holmes), attends the school where Lawrence teaches, but tries his best to avoid him because of Lawrence's crass attitude. Lawrence lives alone with his over-achieving daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who's own behavior is no less self-absorbed then her father's.
After suffering a seizure, Lawrence meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom he learns later was a former student of his. She tells him that a seizure legally prevents him from driving for no less than six months. Catching wind of the opportunity, Lawrence's adopted, never-do-well brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) decides to be a chauffeur, and in return is given a place to stay. As the story moves forward, Lawrence develops a romantic relationship with Dr. Hartigan, and Chuck attempts to teach Vanessa how to get fun out of life.
The film was produced by Michael London, the same guy who was behind the masterpiece Sideways. There are many concepts within Smart People that reminded me of Sideways, mainly the cranky, socially-nonfunctional protagonist whose only coerced out of his introverted persona by a sweeping romance. The big difference between the two films though is its story development. With Sideways, we never wonder why the characters do what they do, because the film took the time to truly develop them, making sure the audience knew them better than they even knew themselves. Smart People--which was penned by first-timer Mark Jude Poirier--has a conflict which goes from sad, to happy, and back to sad so inexplicably, we wonder why these characters do anything we see them do in the film.
But that being said, I enjoyed Smart People quite a bit. Its quick-witted, snappy dialogue pops, and the film has a perfect cast to fill the shows of every part. Dennis Quaid, a much underrated actor, finds a soul within the grizzled Lawrence. It's difficult play a character that's so unbelievably unlikable, yet is on the screen more than 75 percent of the time. Very easily, he could have given Lawrence a very honorable personality, to give him more leeway with the audience, but instead, he makes Lawrence even sadder, more sunken into his own narcissism. I wouldn't be surprised if Quaid's performance turns off some of his loyal fans, but it was the right thing to do for the character.
Thomas Haden Church, an actor with uncanny comedic ability brings most of the laughs of the film. Church, an actor who's always brought depth to his black sheep characters (see him also in his Oscar-nominated performance in Sideways), gives little to no energy to Chuck, instead relying on his subtlety and comedic timing to flesh his slacker character out (not to mention more than one shot of him bare-ass). Ellen Page, the little Canadian that could, is in full Juno-mode here, if Juno were a grade-grubbing Republican, whose worries were not babies but getting a perfect score on the SAT. But there is a depth to her performance, creating a character with complex (almost Oedipus-like) issues, brought on by her maddening father. It's not until Chuck brings it out of her, that she sees the emptiness of her ambitions.
Parker and Holmes, as well, are striking in their supporting roles, each successfully portraying how someone can both hate and fall in love with Lawrence. Truth is, for a first director, Murro truly hit the jackpot with his cast. This film is hard to market; it is certainly too high brow for casual moviegoers, but not nearly as complex for hardcore movie fans to give full acclaim. I, myself, am on the fence with this one, and probably won't know my true opinion of the film's quality until I view it a second time. But I will say this, I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed any other film I've seen so far in 2008, so I guess that's something.