Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes
It sort of goes without saying, doesn't it?
Sometimes, the smartest people are completely clueless in everyday life.
In first-time feature film director Noam Murro's "Smart People," Dennis Quaid is widower Lawrence Wetherhold, an English Lit professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. Quaid's Lawrence is equal parts academically brilliant yet socially inept, and following in his footsteps are his brilliant Stanford-bound daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page, "Juno") and his poet son, James (Ashton Holmes, "Peaceful Warrior").
Their SAT scores may be perfect, but only James shows a semblance of social skills with both Lawrence and his Young Republican daughter being self-described pompous assholes. When Lawrence's freeloading adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"), shows up at their door it becomes even more apparent that the entire family has worked overtime to shut the door on any signs of humanity.
All this changes when Lawrence's narcissism gets the best of him and he lands himself in the emergency room treated by Dr. Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who received a "C" from him her freshman year.
Reminiscent of Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" with touches of "Little Miss Sunshine" tossed in for good measure, "Smart People" offers a sympathetic glimpse at what happens when smart people are forced outside their comfort zones and logic fails to explain those fuzzy feelings that occasionally burst forth inside us no matter how hard we try to squelch them.
Initially, Quaid's Lawrence is such a carbon copy of Jeff Daniels in Baumbach's "Squid and the Whale" that it's hard not to wish for the livelier and funnier Daniels.
Then, suddenly it clicks.
Whereas divorce gave Daniel's character a reason behind his surliness, in "Smart People" Lawrence's self-absorption is uncomfortable because it appears to be who he genuinely is. During one of the film's several apology scenes between Lawrence and Hartigan, Lawrence openly acknowledges not having had "an epiphany. I haven't changed. But I have hope." It's a brilliant blend of humanity and hopefulness from Mark Poirier's intelligent yet often touching script.
Those of you who felt "Juno" was a tad too self-conscious and stylish for its own good may very well embrace this more grounded, yet equally funny and tender film.
Quaid is often uncomfortable as the condescending, almost passionless professor whose intelligence has never been matched by an actual passion for teaching. Quaid's Lawrence often feels like this little boy just starting to figure out that he just might need a human connection after all and, even more poignantly, realizing that his children are following in his footsteps.
Page follows up her Oscar-nominated turn in "Juno" with the polar opposite, at least politically, in "Smart People." Page's Vanessa is deceptively simple in presentation...think a female version of Michael J. Fox's Alex P. Keaton. Yet, Page's Vanessa offers subtle moments, and I mean subtle, of rich humanity that it becomes obvious that she's aware that her intelligence has isolated her and, worst of all, sometimes she's truly lonely.
Page's awkward, vulnerable relationship with Chuck is the perfect blend of schoolgirl flirty and innocent child naivete'. The scenes between Page and Haden Church are surprisingly sweet, and Haden Church hasn't been this good since his turn in Alexander Payne's "Sideways."
As Dr. Hartigan, Sarah Jessica Parker offers a quiet, steady performance that perfectly complements that of Quaid's Lawrence. Dr. Hartigan could have easily been turned into any number of caricatures, but Parker wisely plays her as a more socially secure, yet richly human physician who seems somehow perfectly matched with Lawrence.
Ashton Holmes does a nice job despite largely taking a backseat to the dynamics between Vanessa and Chuck.
Perfectly cast, intelligently written and a nicely paced blend of humor and heart, "Smart People" is the winning story of a family that struggles to discover that sometimes love is the smartest choice of all.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic