April 13, 2008

REVIEW: Smart People (C)

Background: It has such a witty tagline, doesn't it? Written by first-timer Mark Poirier and directed by first-timer Noam Murro (whose previous work was in TV advertising), Smart People stars Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point), Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3), Ellen Page (Juno), Sarah Jessica Parker (Failure to Launch), and Ashton Holmes (A History of Violence). True to the story, it was filmed on location in and around Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh, PA. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and will no doubt benefit from the presence of sudden darling Ellen Page, who has yet to play a character that shares her age.

Synopsis: Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is a grumpy, frumpy, widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon. He's the type of guy who takes up two parking spaces and moves his clock ahead so his office hours will end earlier. In other words, a pompous jerk (who wears corduroy blazers, carries a leather satchel/briefcase, and drives a hatchback - just so we know he's a college professor). When we meet him he's falling apart at the seams - his book manuscript keeps getting rejected and his good-for-nothing brother, Chuck (Haden Church), is moving in to laze around and be the "cool" uncle to Wetherhold's two children. James (Holmes) is a snarky college student who writes poetry, and Juno MacGuff Vanessa (Page) is a snarky high school student who's wise beyond her years. After a silly accident, Wetherhold is reunited with Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), who, like seemingly everyone in the community, was a former standout student of his who he can no longer remember. At this point in the story we know all of the characters and all that's going to happen, so what's left is to sit back and listen to "smart" people sound "stupid" while liberally applying dry sarcasm to conversations revolving around love, relationships, success, Christmas dinner, pregnancy, family, self-pity, and insecurity. You know, the usual insufferable circumstances of overly educated upper-middle class suburbanites.

I Loved:
+ Thomas Haden Church, who knows how to add just the right amount of wit, heart, and crassness to his character. A little similar to his Jack in Sideways, but a great fit nonetheless.

I Liked:
+ Ellen Page, though the timing is unfortunate right after Juno. In my opinion, her performance here was much better, and she appeared more comfortable in a more nuanced character. An aside: how many argyle sweater-vests, thick turtlenecks, and collared silk blouses does the average high school student own?

I Disliked:
- Ashton Holmes, who looked like he was as disgusted with the movie as he was with his dad.
- The bland and ever-present acoustic guitar soundtrack. It just added to the pretension.

I Hated:
- The predictable story arc and occasionally tedious dialogue. Smart People felt like a combo platter of The Savages, Juno, and Margot at the Wedding.

Writing - 6
Acting - 10
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Significance - 3

Total: 37/50= 74% = C

Last Word:
Because "smart" people like nothing more than to demean other "smart" people, we have Smart People, giving more "smart" people (film critics) the opportunity to criticize the "smart" people who made it in the first place. I'm none of the above, but indulge me: despite great performances by Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church, this disappointing film suffers from poor writing across many flat scenes and absolutely no chemistry between Quaid and Parker. There's virtually zero momentum to the story, and to be frank, I really didn't care what happened to any of the characters, who while not altogether unlikable, are hardly relatable. To top it off, I missed any important symbolism or rich meaning hiding in the glossy, sarcastic dialogue. And how was everyone so "smart" anyway - because they're familiar with Victorian literature? Could have used a bit more evidence, though I really don't know if I would have been able to tolerate it. There's nothing wrong with making a movie about neurotic, narcissistic academics (in fact Woody Allen has made a career of it), and the intellectual crowd might have a ball with Smart People. The rest of us, however, are left rolling our eyes and thinking about it would have been a lot smarter to spend our time elsewhere.


  1. Exceptionally witty review that takes no prisoners in its tempestuous wake. That's what I like to see: STONES.

    I've been weighing my options as to what to see next now that ATONEMENT has finally left the last gasp discount theatre in my fair city. So I saw it (along with There Will Be Blood) A LOT these past few months.

    I'll have a brand new review up for something tomorrow and I likely will see Leatherheads regardless of its mixed notices. Flawless and My Blueberry Nights have yet to arrive here. Young@Heart is SUPPOSEDLY opening here next week.

    SP did interest me to a degree. I'm a big fan of Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church and (OF COURSE) Ellen. But I wanted to make sure that it wasn't utterly cliched material where the characters were mostly broad stereotypes and you basically know where the story is going from minute 1. From what I've read elsewhere that sounds suspiciously what it's like - and your review only reinforces that spectacularly. Only you were far more eloquent than most.

    So I guess I'll pass this by. Well done, Danny. Very illuminating...

  2. Nice review, not that I have even seen the film but you made me laugh, so thank you.

    I still want to see it, sadly only for Ellen Page. I like Thomas Haden Church, Dennis Quaid and SJP to a certain point, but they would be the extras for me.

    I am in {starting to sound like a broken record} for Smart People as well.

  3. Haha, thanks as always, Miranda. I guess I didn't pull any punches, did I? Illuminating, eh? Yes, I suppose one could read between the lines and say that I find it hard to relate to the problems of this branch of society. They would be half right.

    SP is not something to avoid like the plague, but I don't expect anyone to champion it for very long. Page's character is the most interesting, but we just don't get enough of her.

    Atonement held on to the bitter end, eh? Maybe I owe it a second chance. Look forward to your new review!

    Thanks, Nick. I did pour on the snarky criticism a bit, didn't I? As I've said, Page is the brightest spot and I'm sure you'll agree. I think SP features a very American type of humor, so I'll be interested to see how it's received over there.

  4. I had a choice between this and The Visitor yesterday afternoon. You make me glad I went with The Visitor even though it was farrrr from perfect.

  5. I'm planing to see this tomorrow night. Most reviews have been tepid at best, but I'm holding out hope that I'll find something to like. It's the cast that's drawing me there. Either way, I enjoyed your review as always.

  6. I think you made the right choice, Craig, but I may be saying that because I expect The Visitor to be my favorite film of the year so far - and I haven't even seen it yet. Hope I disagree with you!

    Thanks to YOU, as always, Pat. Maybe you'll find some nuggets that I missed - I'll watch for it.

  7. Daniel,
    I like your numerical precision with your grading. Me, I pretty much just throw up a letter grade. :)

    I'm surprised I'm the only person who really liked Quaid's performance. Although I agree about the chemistry with Parker being hard to buy.

    So be it.

  8. Thanks, K. I find the scoring breakdown helpful in justifying my grade. Others may see it as a crutch, and your grades are as legitimate without the numbers.

    Speaking of numbers, the acting was the highest part of this for me. I didn't mention Quaid in the company of Page and Church, but he really did well against type. I don't see him a lot in stuffy, potbellied roles, and he can pull it off just fine.

  9. It's hard to dispute many of your points, but I came away appreciating the film a lot more than you, particularly in regards to the dialogue.

    I too loved Church and thought there was little, if any, chemistry between Quaid and SJP.

    Of course, you also tackled my biggest annoyance - the soundtrack. It was brutal, and I can't decide if the director, editor, studio or some combination of the three is to blame. Scene, scene, musical transition, scene, scene, muscial transition. It was so predictable and would have been alright were the music any good. (Come to find out, someone from Extreme was prominently involved - shocker.)

    Still, if I gave grades, this would probably earn a B/B-.

  10. Our tastes differ, so my plan to see this movie on Thursday remains, but honestly is there a more aggravating human being alive than SJP. My sister (19) has recently turned into a Sex in the City fan so every time I go home I am subjected to that terrible show, and I am just beside myself trying to figure out how Parker has become a popular actress. I can't think of someone that annoys me more. That's all I got. Have fun in Vegas.

  11. It seems this is bound to be a contentious film, but I have no problem with anyone enjoying it. My biggest sticking point is really the Parker/Quaid situation. I thought I was the only one sick of the soundtrack, Fletch, so that's good to hear. Extreme? Haha, wow, I had no idea.

    I don't know, Matt, we like different quirky character dramas (Lars), but I don't see you making a case for SP. Maybe it will all fall on SJP, who won't do anything to change your mind here. I can say that I will not be seeing Sex and the City when it explodes in a few months. For some reason women love her character, but I'm as confused as you.


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