Smart People

Smart People fancies itself an urbane comedy in the vein of Sideways, As Good As it Gets and The Squid and the Whale. In fact, it's from one of the same producers of Sideways, as its cover-pitch text and same-shaded lime green color indicate. Hell, it's even got Thomas Haden Church as a rascally n'er-do-well! What more could one want for? A lot, actually. Unfortunately, this movie is a mess — a collection of precious, and preciously false, characters bumping up against one another in a sometimes mildly colorful but ultimately droning fashion.

Focusing on a dysfunctional Pennsylvania family with lots to learn, Smart People centers around a widowed, once idealistic and ambitious Carnegie Mellon classics/English professor, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), who has lost his passion for both teaching and, seemingly, day-to-day interaction with people he looks down upon, which is pretty much everyone. When a sudden head injury after a stupid accident sends Lawrence briefly to the hospital, he finds his world turned upside down. Forced to depend on his under-achieving step-brother Chuck (Church, above left), a freeloading oddball, for transportation, Lawrence is surprised to find himself attracted to an emergency room doctor and former ex-student, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker, playing a blank).

His acerbically witty daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is none too pleased by this development, but as Lawrence begins to emerge from his isolation, this is but the first of several surprising consequences for the entire family. Things that were previously important to him — chairing a search committee for a new department head and trying to surreptitiously push himself into contention, as well as peddling a condescending sociocultural text — become slightly less so. Vanessa, meanwhile, moves from viewing Chuck in chiding and disdainful terms ("You should really make your bed — it sets the tone for the day") to slowly realizing the value in his advice to loosen up a little bit.

Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Noam Murro and scripted by novelist Mark Poirier, Smart People has the look, feel and plump, well-fed density of an adapted novel, even though it's an original work. Yet there's no payoff of hidden pain or fire-born resilience behind all this colorful dysfunction, and the movie isn't across-the-board whipsmart and wildly loquacious enough to compete on the same playing field as something like Metropolitan. The problems in pacing boil down to the fact that you don't really know these characters, especially Lawrence's college-age son James (Ashton Holmes). They're types, all, meant to just colorfully bounce off one another. Lawrence and Janet's stop-and-start relationship is additionally baffling, and certainly not aided by the movie's difficulty at clearly conveying the passage of time.

Page, as she proved in both Hard Candy and Juno, has a wonderful way with intellectual patter, but the role of a bearded academic doesn't suit Quaid very well; he's too much of an everyman, and the self-involved dialogue he's required to deliver sounds mannered and considered coming out of his mouth. Honestly, I laughed more times, apropos of nothing, at Church's moustache-and-Kentucky-bedhead combo than anything else, and would have been perfectly happy to follow his character around, away from everyone else in the movie.

Housed in a regular Amray case with a cardboard slipcover, Smart People comes presented in anamorphic widescreen, with a 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound audio track. Castand crew interviews bolster an EPK-style making-of featurette that runs 16-plus minutes. There's also a feature-length audio commentary track with Munro and screenwriter Poirer in which the pair ladle praise on their cast and discuss the challenges of a 29-day production schedule. Running 10 minutes, a hearty collection of deleted scenes provides more background and detail to Vanessa and Chuck's relationship, and the emotional drift Vanessa is experiencing, the latter shown in her rebellious, against-character embrace of smoking, which baffles Lawrence. There's also a two-minute blooper/gag reel, which offers lots of shots of Quaid and Parker cracking up, and extra footage of Church lounging around in his character's back-flap pajamas. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) B (Disc)


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