Review by Robert Bell
Intelligence is often mistaken for discipline. We, as a society, attribute intelligence to those in certain professions, like doctors and professors. While this certainly makes the trait more explicitly identifiable and easily defined, it's overlooking a great deal of complexity surrounding emotional and cognitive intelligence. In order to succeed in the world of academia, there is a natural acceptance of social signifiers and constructs. There is a belief in the measure of worth by one's ability to succeed given pre-determined criteria. The neuroses and naturally inquisitive nature of intelligence often conflicts with this structure as it is implicit and flawed. This is why disciplined may be a more accurate way of describing those in challenging professions, as their roles in no way imply a natural human understanding beyond those of their peers. It implies only that they excel at standardized testing, or come from a rich family. Which is not to be dismissed at all, discipline is an enviable characteristic. However, it is not intelligence.
Such is the world in Smart People; one where "smartness" is defined by tangible rewards rather than inherent abilities. This is perfectly fine, as the film doesn't really ask much of the audience, or forcibly instill pre-determined belief systems. They exist as social norms, which ultimately make the film that much more digestible by the mainstream. Smart People features clever writing, solid direction, some great performances and an overall message that should please most filmgoers. It really is one of best films so far in 2008; it's just not great.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed English professor whose latest writings have been turned down by publishers. His son James (Ashton Holmes) attends the school that Lawrence teaches at, but scarcely speaks to his father, feeling little connection. On the other hand, his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) emulates her father's moral codes as a young Republican who values success over relationships.
After suffering a seizure, Lawrence is told that he will be unable to drive for six months by ex-student/ER chief Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), leaving his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a pot smoking slacker, to act as his personal chauffer.
While Smart People is a clever and engaging familial dysfunction seriocomedy, it has some issues around character arcing. The essential purpose of the film is to show the awakening of "smart" socially inept people. Character ciphers (Church, Parker) exist to help Quaid and Page loosen up and get more enjoyment from life. From a formulaic perspective this works however, the transitioning of these "smart" people, in particular Page, is somewhat hackneyed and not entirely convincing. This can be observed in a scene early in the film, where Uncle Chuck offers his highly strung niece a joint. Her character has already been developed as someone unresponsive to the needs of others; especially those who she perceives as beneath her. It just isn't believable that she would "take a breather" and "smoke up" with her imbecile uncle; at least not without some sort of event happening to put her guard down. This is just one example of a tendency towards credulity straining character arcs utilized in this film. It often takes the easy way out while propelling towards a formulaic resolution.
Aforementioned character flaws aside, the script is quite well written. The language is fluent, the banter is clever, and it consistently proves engaging. Screenwriter Mark Poirier certainly has some talent that will only improve with experience.
Direction by Noam Munro is also a strong point in this film. There is a maturity in his vision, which allows the audience to embrace the on screen antics through their own eyes. He allows scenes to linger and develop their own trajectory, giving a lot of breathing room to his talented actors. It's a commercially viable vision, and Munro likely has a nice mainstream film career ahead of him.
Not surprisingly, the acting by all of the leads is solid. What is surprising, however, is that Sarah Jessica Parker is the strongest. She delivers clever dialogue with an understated zest that one wouldn't expect from her. In fact, her entire performance is understated, as she often keeps her thoughts and feelings beneath the surface, while murmuring her dialogue with a quiet confidence. Quaid and Church are both solid throughout, delivering expectedly well crafted characters. The weakest of the four is Ellen Page, not necessarily through inability on her part, more through a misread of her character. Vanessa is supposed to be a determined and rigid young Republican, and Page simply gives her too much emotional intelligence to convincingly convey her actions.
Smart People falls somewhere in between the glib and acerbic Squid and the Whale, and the fluffy dysfunction of Little Miss Sunshine; acting as an engaging dark comedy with talent sprinkled throughout. It is a good film, acting as the best release so far in 2008, but isn't great, struggling with characterization.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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