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Smart People (2008)
Smart People is a 2008 American comedy-drama film starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church. The film was directed by Noam Murro, written by Mark Poirier and produced by Michael London, with Omar Amanat serving as executive producer. Smart People was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, including several scenes at Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh International Airport. Premiering at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, North American distribution rights were acquired by Miramax Films and the film was released widely on April 11, 2008. Carnegie Mellon English Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is a middle-aged widower. He is bitter and arrogant at work, uninterested in his students, and alienated from his two children. His adopted ne'er-do-well brother, Chuck (Church), arrives to borrow money and stays for a while as he tries to unwind Lawrence's lonely, overachieving teenage daughter, Vanessa (Page). Meanwhile, Lawrence suffers a trauma-induced seizure after falling from the top of a fence in an attempt to retrieve his briefcase from inside his impounded car. In the emergency room, he is treated by Dr.
Entering into the Wetherhold house, ostensibly to chauffer the belligerent prof after a seizure suspends his driver's license, is Lawrence's laid-back, semi-transient adopted brother Chuck. Chuck is played by Thomas Haden Church in a clear and mostly successful post-Sideways bid to establish future laid-back semi-transients as 'the Thomas Haden Church part.' Church and Page are especially fun to watch and, especially, listen to: Church's sort of deadpan surfer growl and Page's nasal precociousness in a vocal duel. That they recall their previous roles only hastens our desire to spend time with them.
Familiarity in a comedy-drama screenplay, though, is less valuable, and Smart People racks up a lot of superficial resemblances. To its credit, it recalls a terrific roster of other movies: the gone-to-seed professor has shades of Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale, while the dysfunctional family with an 'adopted' sibling always introduced as such echoes The Royal Tenenbaums. It never rips any of these movies off -- dysfunctional families and cranky professors were not invented by early-aughts indie movies -- but nor does it come close to keeping up with the achievements of its higher-achieving siblings.
Indeed, the film eventually breaks free of those comparisons not by establishing its own tone and tempo, but by sabotaging it. Wetherhold begins a relationship with the doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who first treats his seizure; this subplot manages to dominate the second half of the movie, relegating Church and Page to the background, without ever developing into something believable or even particularly interesting. It's a real triumph of vagueness when the doctor's anger at the pompous, stubborn, often unpleasant Wetherhold still seems like the arbitrary decision of the screenwriter.
The entire story moves at such an odd, reckless pace, whipping around its plot turns with scenes that often end abruptly -- sometimes after just a few seconds -- that it sometimes seems as if the picture's rhythm has been surgically removed. If Harvey Weinstein were still at Miramax, I'd wonder about him slicing and dicing another film-festival pickup (Smart People played at Sundance), but maybe first-time director Noam Murro is so eager to get to the good, redemptive stuff that he overlooks the better, human stuff in between. Twenty minutes in, the insistent acoustic-guitar score is already plinking like the movie is about to end.
Stranger still, the actual ending strikes a nice, muted note. But by that point, the movie has cast aside characters (including a superfluous extra family member -- Lawrence's son, a thankless role for young actor Ashton Holmes), neglected its three fine leads, and only dipped its feet into its campus milieu. The actors make Smart People homey and comfy enough, but the film doesn't build them a proper home.
The DVD includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, making-of featurette, and a commentary track.
Drop and give me 20 clever quips.