By Kris Ashton
Hereâ€™s yet another well-made, well-acted dramedy featuring second string stars that will flicker on cinema screens for a few months and then vanish quietly into the night. The name itself is box office poison; Sarah Jessica Parker might attract a few thirty-something women, but the commercial mother lode â€“ teenage boys â€“ will head for the hills. Itâ€™s a pity, because â€˜â€™Smart Peopleâ€™â€™ is an all-too-rare example of a movie that has a brain, but uses it for something other than meaningless mind games and navel gazing.
Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor who has withdrawn into himself following his wifeâ€™s death. He lives with his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), an articulate Young Republican and type-A personality, and he has a poetry-writing son, James (Ashton Holmes) whom he hardly knows.
Their drab, existential lives get a shake up when Lawrenceâ€™s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) comes on the scene looking to sponge money. Around the same time, while trying to retrieve his car from a university impound lot, Lawrence falls from a fence and ends up in hospital, where a doctor and former student, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) informs him he had a mild seizure and cannot legally drive for the next six months. The aloof Lawrence now finds himself attracted to Janet (much to Vanessaâ€™s disquiet) and stuck with his brother as a chauffer.
The central theme in â€˜â€™Smart Peopleâ€™â€™ is at once simple and complex: Lawrence and his daughter (who uses him as a role model) both hide behind their formidable intellects to avoid confronting unpleasant emotions and home truths. Why shed a tear when a you can deliver a bitter bon mot instead? Itâ€™s their gradual emotional awakening â€“ and their resistance to it â€“ that gives the film its impetus.
Ironically, â€˜â€™Smart Peopleâ€™â€™ (like its characters) can be a little self-satisfied with its own intellectualism at times, but not pompously so. And hey, it is pretty smart â€“ itâ€™s the first movie Iâ€™ve ever seen that correctly uses the word â€˜nauseatedâ€™ instead of â€˜nauseousâ€™ (see the footnote below if you care to know the difference).
Church as the easygoing brother is a stand out among the cast, but thereâ€™s nary a bad performance to be seen. Quaid delivers another â€˜disgruntled middle-aged manâ€™ like the one he created for â€˜â€™In Good Companyâ€™â€™ and Page (best known for her role as â€˜jailbait with an attitudeâ€™ in â€˜â€™Hard Candyâ€™â€™ and her turn in the Oscar nominated â€˜â€™Junoâ€™â€™) could not be better cast as the icy but vulnerable Vanessa.
Screenwriter Mark Poirier subscribes to the â€˜â€™Gilmore Girlsâ€™â€™ school of improbable dialogue, but director Noam Murro does not opt for that TV showâ€™s rapid-fire delivery, which makes it easier to swallow (and follow). And there are some wickedly good lines here.
In fine, “Smart Peopleâ€™â€™ is a drama/rom-com for people who donâ€™t want to be talked down to. And if the film seems too pleased with itself from time to time â€¦ well, that comes with the territory when youâ€™re smarter than everyone else.
A featurette on the film’s premiere at Sundance, nine deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews and an informative commentary with director Noam Murro and screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier.