Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Noam Murro
DVD Release Date: August 12, 2008
Running Time: 95 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Miramax Films
I will preface this review with an admission of guilt that I am more than happy to announce as loud as it will take for anyone to hear it: I can’t stand Ellen Page. In my humble opinion Juno was just alright and my distaste for the movie rests solely on the shoulders of its star. I found myself defending my position during the films release more than I felt necessary and the singular argument that came from the other camp was that if I like her in Hard Candy (I did) and hated her in Juno, then I must have disliked the character Juno more than the person acting as her. That wouldn’t be a bad argument if it weren’t completely wrong. On the timeline of this longstanding debate, Smart People may have dealt the death blow for the opposing side. But let me back up just a touch.
As a film critic, I would like to think I am subjective enough not to let a singular performance ruin an otherwise decent movie. It hasn’t always held true (see: Juno), but I was bound and determined not to let it happen here. In other words, I went into it with an open mind. I am proud to say that I did not find Smart People to be a bad movie because of Ellen Page. No, this time it was a group effort.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a literature professor at a local college. Not only can his students, peers and family not stand him, he seems to almost prefer it that way. He blames it on the fact that he is a lost soul since his wife passed away, but hearing that past students felt the same way suggests that he has always been a miserable curmudgeon and only now has a comfortable excuse. His daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) seems to share his flair for the dramatic. A member of the Young Republicans, shooting for the perfect SAT score with no friends or life outside of the walls of misery the family seems to be insulated in, she follows daddy’s path in lockstep. A series of events land Lawrence in the hospital in the care of Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and in the compromising position of relying on his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) for help. Upon his discharge, he fumbles his way into a date with the Dr. Hartigan. Then screws it up. Then inexplicably gets another date. Then screws it up again. And so on. The whole movie revolves around the central fact that not one of its characters can function in or navigate their way through any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and beyond the flighty (adopted) brother Chuck, everyone in the movie is a miserable wreck. I take that back; Chuck is a mess too, but he seems to be the only one trying to outrun the pack. I have no problem peering into a snow globe of the unfortunate. Seeing people climb out of a well despair, of their design or not, is the basis of a lot of good movies. But when people are there of their own volition coupled with a stubborn refusal for change, it is difficult to generate any sympathy - especially when the majority of the dialogue is reserved for spelling out their level of discontent.
Beyond the story itself, the actors are all guilty of thinking everyone will fall for it without questioning anything. Every interaction in the movie is forced. Sarah Jessica Parker and Dennis Quaid have a laughable lack of chemistry that may have fit the story better if it weren’t so overdone. Ellen Page could have done herself a favor and not followed Juno up with a character that is basically a carbon copy; albeit a few years more cynical. The only ray of hope is Thomas Haden Church and even he is reduced to a one-note, zany slob relative that is more obvious than it is refreshing. The story is clunky, the characters are smug and self-absorbed and the acting is so pretentious and whiney that I just can’t get passed the fact that they are trying too hard to make this movie something it is obviously not.
Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.” These characters obviously didn’t get that message. I just wish there would have at least been a scene where someone took them all out back and gave them something to cry about.
And there’s the rub.
* ½ out of ****