Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Sarah
Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes
Director: Noam Murro
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: August 12, 2008
“You’re a giant toddler!”
Smart People is one of those movies that’s easy to figure out in terms of story. In a way, the movie plays a lot like Sundance’s greatest hits in terms of realistic family dramedies. And yet, the individual characters make the movie a most worthwhile experience.
If you’ve familiarized yourself with the works of filmmakers like Noam Baumbach and Alexander Payne, then Smart People could be easily categorized as a lite version of one of their films. The story centers in on a family that has lost the ability to be…well…functional. They are damaged in an unusually funny way.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon. He wants three things in life at the moment; to be head of the literature department, get a manuscript of his published, and for everyone to leave him the hell alone. He’s so socially retarded that he tends to forget students’ names on a daily basis.
His jerkiness has indeed rubbed off on his son and daughter. Vanessa (Ellen Page) is a high school senior who’s top of her class, as well as a Young Republican. Meanwhile, son James (Ashton Holmes) attends Carnegie Mellon and is so fed up with the family life that he boards there as well.
When an attempt to retrieve his car results in a severe bump on the head, Lawrence ends up in the hospital. His doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), informs him that he can’t drive for six months. She is also a former student of his, and also happens to have something of a crush on him.
And as if things weren’t already going rough for Lawrence, along comes his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Lawrence can’t drive, Chuck needs a place to stay so things apparently work out for the better. Well, not so much because Chuck happens to be extremely unreliable.
What lays ahead in the movie are several character arcs. A love story develops between Lawrence and Janet, with expected difficulties along the way. Vanessa, striving to get acceptance from her father, begins bonding a little too closely with step Uncle Chuck. And Lawrence, himself, has to deal with the fact that he’s a complete and utter jerk to just about everyone.
The cast completely delivers here. Quaid is in terrific grouchy mode as the self-absorbed academic. Church, who is about as perfect an actor you could get for this part, earns laughs in his every scene. Sarah Jessica Parker provides a perfect love interest, and Ellen Page is thoroughly sharp as they come as the overachieving daughter.
While not offering anything we haven’t seen before, Smart People is a mostly spot on, painfully funny look at a truly dysfunctional family.
The anamorphic picture on this Miramax release is most terrific. There’s almost a gray consistence with the color tone that matches well with the character portraits. A bit soft in areas but overall a fine presentation.
The movie being a straightforward dialogue piece, the 5.1 mix does do what it can in other areas. Dialogue delivery is thoroughly clear from beginning to end, and occasional music plays effectively well.
The extras on this disc include a commentary with director Noam Murro and screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier, as well as Deleted Scenes, a Blooper Reel and a featurette titled “The Smartest People: Interviews With Filmmakers And Cast”.
Smart People is a dead on and funny depiction of people who are indeed smart, but socially inept. While not a completely fresh comedy, the film succeeds in being a likable and hilarious character piece.