April 14, 2008

Nice Try, Smart Ass …

Print More

Smart People. Of all the vague, pointless movie names writer’s have thought up lately, this one certainly takes the cake. Thankfully, the title of Noam Murro’s new romantic comedy has very little to do with its story, and one can effectively forget it from the get-go. Unfortunately, the film’s inconsistencies do not stop at the title screen, since the plot is also pointless. In fact, barring two solid performances from Ellen Page, of Juno fame, and Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways), this movie leaves viewers wondering why they bothered to watch it at all.
The story begins with Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), an English professor at Carnegie Mellon, bumbling around campus and pissing off everyone he meets. In the first five minutes of the film, it is made blatantly obvious that Wetherhold is an introverted asshole who is haunted by the memories of his wife, bitter at all the publishing companies who rejected his new book and a negligant parent who ignores his two bright children, James (Ashton Holmes) and Vanessa (Page). In fact, Lawrence hates people so much that his character refuses to sit on the right side of the car, which means that Lawrence and the driver are never on the same level and their conversations are impersonal and awkward.
The ball starts rolling when Lawrence suffers a concussion after falling over a fence at the impound lot where his car was just towed. To add to his misery, Lawrence’s broke, homeless adopted brother Chuck (Church) shows up at his doorstep asking for money.
Lawrence’s initial misfortunes turn out to be his saving grace; his doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), happens to be a former student who had a schoolgirl crush on him years ago. Obviously, Lawrence asks her out. As their love story progresses — at a painfully slow pace — Murro sporadically shines the light on the other dysfunctional members of the Wetherhold family. The most emphasized side story features Vanessa, who is the best example of the primary theme of the movie: Smart People sometimes need help the most. Vanessa is a high school senior who was just accepted into Stanford and is just waiting until the day when she can move away her depressing situation. The combination of her prodigious talents (from an academic standpoint) and the lack of attention her “role-model” father gives her results in a scorn for people in general. Luckily, —another blessing in disguise — Uncle Chuck recognizes that her bitter attitude is due to terrible parenting and encourages Vanessa to live like a normal teenager — which bascally means getting drunk.
If director Noam Murro had only used Lawrence and Vanessa’s bitter stories as the crux of Smart People, I believe it would have turned out fine. However, he toys with the pace of the movie by including some random and pointless side plots, and fails to flesh anything out, or give any proper closure. Case in point: The character of James, the son of Lawrence, has some cameos in the film, but only for the purpose of demonstrating how poor a parent Lawrence is. In one scene, Lawrence shows up at James’ college dorm room, demanding to know why James did not tell him about a poem James successfully sold to The New York Times. Pull the camera to James’ bed and we see a colleague of Lawrence’s hiding underneath the sheets. To demonstrate how oblivious Lawrence is of his children’s amazing achievements is one thing, but it is completely unnecessary to introduce James’ relationship, since, after that scene, the sub-plot is dropped.
Murro tries to put too much into his movie, and it is painful to watch snippets of ill-conceived side stories (like the above, or also Vanessa’s inexplicable crush on her uncle), all without any legitimate exploration. The highlight of the film is the acting, most notably Page’s performance; as in Juno, she perfectly portrays the cheeky rebel with a sense of humor so dry a camel would see a mirage. Complementing Page’s fine acting is Thomas Hayden Church, whose role as the only Wetherhold family member with a rational view of life, is played to satisfaction.
Smart People is a flawed romantic comedy, but one that stands alone in that genre due to the copious quantities of dry humor and its stellar cast. If you do choose to make the trip to see Smart People, sit back and witness Ellen Page’s undeniable talent, and then rent Juno.