Each year over the past few years has produced its own "little movie that could," a quasi-independent comedy-drama that usually follows a dysfunctional family as they come to terms with their quirks and find peace in their disorganized lives. "The Squid and the Whale" in 2005, "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006, and "Juno" in 2007 have all effectively filled this spot. "Smart People" is apparently this year's official entry, but it falls short on several counts, not the least of which is that it fails to be very comedic or dramatically absorbing. Written and directed by a pair of film novices, the film seems to be the product of two filmmakers who could use a little more experience in developing character relationships.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a college English professor. Since his wife's death several years ago, he has become disillusioned with his job, emotionally distant from his family, and indifferent to life in general. We know he is in rough shape because he always parks his car at the wrong angle. After falling from a high fence and suffering a seizure while trying to obtain his towed car, Lawrence is taken to the hospital where he is cared for by Dr. Janet Hartigan, a former student of his (Sarah Jessica Parker). Forbidden to drive for several weeks, he must depend on rides from his loafer brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), whom Lawrence is always quick to point out is adopted.
Having taken over the maternal duties since her mother's death, high school senior Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page) balances tending to her father with trying desperately to achieve the perfect SAT score. A withdrawn young woman, she pours herself into her studying with no mind to what is happening outside of academia. Chuck attempts to pull her out of her shell, which he eventually does by getting her to smoke pot. In return, she develops an unhealthy romantic affection for him borne from her lack of social experience. She also reveals a possessive side when Lawrence sparks up a strained romance with Janet, a relationship that progresses in starts and fits as Lawrence cannot move beyond his own self-interests to truly connect with her.
In Billy Wilder's classic "Sunset Blvd.," Norma Desmond famously dismisses the advent of sound films, lamenting that "they opened their big mouths and out came talk, talk, talk!" Never had I seen a film that so totally reflected Norma's scathing critique until I saw "Smart People," a movie so dependent on clever dialogue that it forgets about depth of character, human interest, or just plain entertainment. The characters in "Smart People" spend the majority of the film waxing sarcastically about each other's faults and their own problems, but it is all talk. There is no humanity underneath to make us care about them or their problems.
First-time feature director Noam Murro and first-time screenwriter Mark Poirier have attempted to craft a fine-tuned portrait of deeply flawed and neurotic characters, but what they have done is spin out a deadly dull narrative about four depressed stereotypes who spend an hour and a half going from unhappy to slightly less unhappy. The characters in this film constantly talk about their problems, criticizing them, analyzing them, and making sharply narrow observations. We, however, are never allowed to feel for them because they simply talk too much. Watching this film is akin to sitting in a therapist's office listening to a dysfunctional family describe their troubles rather than living with them and experiencing their dilemmas for ourselves. The film's message, as Murro and Poirier have discussed, is that although these characters are intelligent and well-educated, they are "emotional idiots." They use their knowledge to hide the fact that they cannot connect with other people. Unfortunately, the film as a whole can be accused of the same condition. On the surface, the dialogue sounds clever and biting, but it lacks the emotional resonance to support it, thus denying us the chance to relate to the characters.
What is most unfortunate is that the movie's fine cast is utterly wasted. Lawrence and Janet are not developed enough for their romance to have any spark of chemistry, leaving Quaid and Parker with little to do. They are listless and unlikeable characters. Thomas Haden Church provides some occasional comic relief as Chuck, but aside from a few clever comebacks, Chuck is just never very interesting. As Vanessa, Ellen Page displays many of the same characteristics she would go on to perfect in "Juno" (although released first, "Juno" was actually filmed after "Smart People"). But Juno was a three-dimensional character with hopes, insecurities, and palpable emotions beneath her outward cynicism. Vanessa could be her more straight-laced, less interesting identical twin sister. If there's one thing this film proves, it's that Page really needs to move out of the angst-ridden teen role if she hopes to have a long-lasting career.
"Smart People" arrives on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Released in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, the film looks good and retains its deliberately low-key appearance. The picture is a tad dark, with solid black levels and perhaps a little grain. This is apparently intentional. Detail is sharp, and skin tones look natural.
The audio is delivered in Dolby Digital 5.1, but the dialogue-heavy soundtrack doesn't benefit greatly from it. Voices, music, and ambient sounds come through clearly with no distortion or noticeable problems. This is certainly not the film to test your sound equipment, but for all intents and purposes it sounds fine. Optional subtitles are available in English (closed captions), French, and Spanish.
Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier provide an audio commentary. It is a very relaxed and ultimately none-too-informative track. They spend a lot of time making some pretty obvious observations and telling jokes. Not very interesting. Curiously, there are subtitles for the commentary track, although they are not listed on the main menu. You can access them during the film with your remote control. Generally, I am a great champion of commentary subtitles, only this time I just wish the track had been more interesting.
"The Smartest People" is a 17-minute featurette, boasting interviews with cast and crew members. It is pretty standard fluff, with everyone discussing how great the script was and how interesting their characters are.
Nine deleted scenes follow, though none are particularly interesting or add much to the film. A mildly amusing blooper reel rounds out the disc.
"Smart People" is exactly like its characters—cluttered and complicated on the surface but emotionally empty underneath. It is never as thoughtful or insightful as it seems to think it is, and it leaves its cast with little to do but pick at each other in fruitless attempts to arrive at some great truth. Although marketed as a comedy, the film barely qualifies as one. In the end, it is just a sad little movie about a sad little family, and nothing more.