August 12, 2008
Smart People (2008) is the latest in a long, checkered lineage of quirky, independent film dramedies (comedy-drama hybrids). Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) established the template with the following ingredients: take a dysfunctional family with a protagonist beset by problems, throw in a wildly eccentric relative who is inevitably the black sheep of the clan, set it during one of the holidays, and stir. Sometimes, as with Little Miss Sunshine (2006), this works, while other times, as with The Family Stone (2005) it goes horribly wrong.
In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, the protagonist beset by problems. He’s a burnt out college English professor who has lost all interest in the courses he teaches since his wife died. Thomas Haden Church plays Chuck, the black sheep and adopted brother of Lawrence who is currently trying to sell calling cards. Rounding out the family is Lawrence’s son, Jim (Holmes), and Vanessa (Page), a very intelligent young Republican-in-training.
Chuck needs a place to crash after his latest scam falls through and in return he has to chauffeur Lawrence around. The uptight Vanessa and laidback Chuck end up bonding over a marijuana cigarette and telenovella. Thrown into the mix is Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), a former student of Lawrence’s who treats her ex-professor in the E.R. after he has a seizure brought on from scaling a fence while trying to retrieve his suitcase from his impounded car. Set during the Christmas season, Lawrence finds himself attracted to his former student and they go on a disastrous first date where he spends most of the time talking about himself. The rest of the film tracks the arc of their developing relationship with interludes of Chuck teaching Vanessa to loosen up.
Dennis Quaid has the sad sack professor shtick down cold, complete with pot belly, the tired, stooped posture, and the letting-his-good-looks-go beard. He appears to be channeling Michael Douglas’ burnt out college professor from Wonder Boys (2000) but without that film’s strong, insightful screenplay. It doesn’t help that, as written, Quaid’s character is a self-absorbed, pretentious boob.
Smart People’s central conceit is that even though Lawrence and his family are very intelligent, they are socially inept. The problem is, as presented, these characters are annoying and smugly superior, looking down on anyone who doesn’t display the same level of smarts. Chuck is the one notable exception and this is due in large part to Thomas Haden Church’s affable charm. With his rumpled, disheveled look and deadpan smarm, he steals every scene that he’s in. With the exception of Chuck, these are unlikeable characters and one wonders why anyone would want to spend time with them. They are all depressed about their dreary lives which results in a dull film with the occasional glimmers of comedy.
“The Smartest People” is a standard promotional featurette with cast and crew soundbites mixed with clips from the film. They talk about their characters, the film and shooting on location in Pittsburgh.
Also included are nine deleted scenes. Some highlights include a nice scene between Chuck and Vanessa where he tries to get her to lighten up. There is more of the subplot involving Lawrence trying to become the head of his department. There is also a funny bit where Chuck tries to pick up a barmaid.
“Not So Smart” is a collection of bloopers and blown lines by the cast that is mildly amusing.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier. They talk about why they picked Carnegie Mellon as the campus where Lawrence teaches. From there, they naturally segue into the casting of Dennis Quaid. The two men touch briefly upon character motivations and thematic preoccupations. They also point out that Elle Page made this film before Juno (2007) and praise her skill as an actor. This is a low-key, somewhat uninvolving track.