Smart People [DVD]

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By Kris Ashton

Here’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 – teenage boys – will head for the hills. It’s a pity, because ‘’Smart People’’ 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Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor who has withdrawn into himself following his wife’s death.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 Lawrence’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 Vanessa’s disquiet) and stuck with his brother as a chauffer.

The central theme in ‘’Smart People’’ 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? It’s their gradual emotional awakening – and their resistance to it – that gives the film its impetus.

Ironically, ‘’Smart People’’ (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 – it’s the first movie I’ve ever seen that correctly uses the word ‘nauseated’ instead of ‘nauseous’ (see the footnote below if you care to know the difference).

Church as the easygoing brother is a stand out among the cast, but there’s nary a bad performance to be seen. Quaid delivers another ‘disgruntled middle-aged man’ like the one he created for ‘’In Good Company’’ and Page (best known for her role as ‘jailbait with an attitude’ in ‘’Hard Candy’’ and her turn in the Oscar nominated ‘’Juno’’) could not be better cast as the icy but vulnerable Vanessa.

Screenwriter Mark Poirier subscribes to the ‘’Gilmore Girls’’ school of improbable dialogue, but director Noam Murro does not opt for that TV show’s rapid-fire delivery, which makes it easier to swallow (and follow). And there are some wickedly good lines here.

In fine, “Smart People’’ is a drama/rom-com for people who don’t want to be talked down to. And if the film seems too pleased with itself from time to time … well, that comes with the territory when you’re smarter than everyone else.

Extras

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.