I realize the divorce rate is 50% here in the States, but does that mean that nearly every Indie flick has to be about dysfunctional families? I’ve had about enough of these sad sack snobs – and as a film critic I’m supposed to be one! Smart People, whose title refers to characters that are only smart in the eye of the beholder, is the latest entry into this crumbling genre. It offers a not-so-fresh slate of woe-is-me’s who don’t even seem to realize their lives suck until they admit it at about the one hour and ten minute mark. The film offers some witty one-liners, but it’s largely a by-the-numbers affair that really just made me feel better about myself.
Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a grouchy English professor who won’t even make time for his students who are eager to learn. His wife is deceased, his do-nothing adopted brother, Chuck (Haden Church), has shown up looking for a handout, and his daughter, Vanessa (Page), is following in his not-so-happy footsteps. Worse yet, he has seizures that prevent him from driving. That leaves Chuck as his personal chauffeur. There may be hope yet as Lawrence begins dating his “former” doctor, Janet (Parker). Could things turn around? Will inspiration rise from the most unlikely of sources?
Smart People does a remarkable amount of meandering to reach such an obvious conclusion. Screenwriter Mark Poirier has certainly done his homework and written what sounds like a smart script, but so few of the themes actually stick. Poirier is clearly going for the kind of dark and awkward humor we expect from the genre, but much of it is flat-out dull. The main problem here is a common one: none of the characters are very likable, thus making it difficult to root for their happiness. Only Chuck, who at least knows he’s a lazy bum, gets any laughs.
It’s all too bad, because the cast is superb. Dennis Quaid looks a heck of a lot older than he did in Vantage Point, but his transformation to a curmudgeon of a professor is convincing. Thomas Haden Church steals the show and is given all the best lines. He has tremendous comic timing and it’s on full showcase here. The supporting work by Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page (pigeonhole alert here) is satisfactory, if not all-too-familiar.
The elements were in place for Smart People to be a cut above, but it’s far from it. This scenario has been played to death and the Indie drama needs to be steered in a different direction. We get it: the little things can make an unhappy person happy. Now let’s move on to a real downer: the things that can make a happy person unhappy.
Studio: Miramax Films
Length: 95 Minutes
Rating: R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use and for some sexuality.
Theatrical Release: January 20, 2008 (Sundance Film Festival) / April 11, 2008 (Limited)
Directed by: Noam Murro
Written by: Mark Poirier
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti