Smart People

Miramax April 11

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Premieres)–Novelist Mark Jude Poirier and commercials director Noam Murro make a decent but not great feature directorial debut in “Smart People,” yet another brightly scripted serio-comedy about a dysfunctional family headed by a single father, an emotionally reserved professor.

Shown in the Premiere Section at the 2007 Sundance Film Fest, “Smart People” will be released by Miramax on April 11, first in big cities then across the country.

In many ways, “Smart people” characterizes many features at Sundance this year, pointing out to some of the problems of this high-profile section. Genre-wise, dysfunctional families may be the flavor of the year, and the same goes for the prevalent tone, darkly humorous. Add to it a name cast of actors, such as Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker, who make low-budget indies so that they can stretch and shake off their more established screen images, and you have a formula for a typical Sundance premiere, a middling, but not really good, film, though one with sufficiently decent ingredients to make it worth attending.

It may be a coincidence, but, after a long absence, university professors seem to be in as screen characters in Hollywood melodramas. This season alone, we saw Robert Redford in “Lambs for Lions, Kevin Spacey as MIT instructor in “21,” Dennis Quaid in this picture, and Richard Jenkins in Tom McCarthy's upcoming “The Visitor,” which played at Sundance and Toronto last year, but is being released now by Overture Films. (See End Note)

Though occasionally sprinkled with witty dialogue, the film suffers from two problems. First, it lacks dramatic momentum or strong narrative pull, a combined result of the fact that the scribe is a novelist and the director is a first-timer, who comes from the world of commercials. Second, and more importantly, as written and acted, the secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads, so we are always happy when the yarn switches to Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page, who both give terrific performances. (Both Church and Page have recently been nominated for Oscars).

Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, an intellectually arrogant middle-aged professor, a cranky man who doesn't care about his students; not only does he not remember their names, he's also reluctant to encourage the bright ones in his classes. Like Redford's character in “Lambs for Lions,” he is a once upon a time idealistic and ambitious academic, who is now emotionally burnt out and bitter, due to the rejection of his work on cultural criticism by various publishers.

Back home, life is not much rosier. Lawrence is a widower living with his two adult children, a college-aged son James (Ashton Holmes, who made a strong impression as Viggo Mortensen's son in “History of Violence) and a precocious daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page of “Juno” Fame), a Republican idolizing Reagan. Things change when Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck (Church), a stoner and lay-about, suddenly shows up, seeking financial help.

Melodrama kicks in when Lawrence suffers a seizure and is sent to the hospital, where he meets (or rather remeets) Janet (Parker), a doctor who once took his literature class as a freshman. Of course, Lawrence has no recollection of her. However, he is not entirely closed-minded to what the encounter suggests or promises, and gradually a tentative romance begins to take shape.

Early on, Lawrence comes across as a stereotypical academic, an acerbic, self-absorbed lit professor, who likes to be in control but life handles him one blow after another–until his well-thought-out world comes to a crash, forcing him to change.

Indeed, as a character, Janet belongs to a tradition of countless women in Hollywood screwball comedies whose main purpose is to transform–defrost–and shatter completely the academic out of his ivory tower and isolated milieu. (The classic formulation of this type of male-female relationship is still in Howard Hawks' “Bringing Up Baby” with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant).

Unfortunately for the picture as a whole, a far more interesting relationship prevails between the intense and smart Vanessa, who's a solitary high school senior, and the quirky Chuck, who despite malfunctioning can relate to the young girl and understand her frustrations and sense of loss better than her educated but emotionally detached dad. Chuck gets Vanessa to talk, to express repressed emotions, and she's particularly relaxed and funny in a scene when she's stoned, and later on in a bar, where she gets tipsy.

Since Murro's background is in advertising, the movie has a glossy facade, but it's also too episodic, lacking strong drive or dramatic continuity. As if aware of this problem, the helmer fills the soundtrack with songs and lyrics illustrate or accentuate the characters' emotions and verbal expressions in the most obvious ways.

Possibly limited by their roles, Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker look right and acquit themselves honorably–but no more. Ultimately, it's the brilliant Ellen Page and Thomas Hayden Hayden who bring sparks and energy, elevating in their scenes the film to a more enjoyable plateau than it has right to be.

End Note

Of the four films sets in academe, Tom McCarthy's “The Visitor” is the most interesting and politically relevant.

Cast

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid)
Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker)
Chuck (Thomas Haden Church)
Vanessa (Ellen Page)
James (Ashton Holmes)

Credits

A Miramax Films release, presented with Groundswell Prods., in association with Sherezade, Visitor Pictures, of a Corduroy Films, Table Top Films production, in association with QED Intl.
Produced by Bridget Johnson, Michael Costigan, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea.
Executive producers, Omar Amanat, Steffen Aumuller, Marina Grasic, Jennifer Roth, Kenneth Orkin, Ed Rugoff, Said Boudarga.
Co-producers, Claus Clausen, Glenn Stewart, Deborah Aquila, John Woldenberg.
Directed by Noam Murro.
Screenplay, Mark Jude Poirier.
Camera: Toby Irwin.
Editors: Robert Frazen, Yana Gorskaya.
Music: Nuno Bettencourt.
Production designer: Patti Podesta.
Costume designer: Amy Westcott.
Art director: Ron Mason.
Set decorator: Teresa Visinare.
Sound: Jim Emswiller.
Supervising sound editor: Sandy Gendler.

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 95 Minutes.