‘Smart People’ Tries To Be Too Smart

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Courtesy of Miramax Publicity
Courtesy of Miramax Publicity
Ellen Page (center) plays Vanessa, a sarcastic daddy’s girl in Noam Murro’s new film “Smart People.”
What is wrong with being smart? It is a simple question that is asked repeatedly in different ways throughout the movie, “Smart People,” and in reality, the answer is that there is nothing wrong with being intelligent. However, simply acting smart can only get someone so far, which is a problem that this film runs into throughout its duration. A weak script and some confused directional touches damper this film’s potential, built on a solid cast and great ideas.
Directed by Noam Murro, the film follows Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed literature professor who is down on his luck on life and self-absorbed in his work. Not only does he have a hard time remembering his students’ names and getting his work published like the rest of his colleagues, Lawrence also has a son, James (Ashton Holmes), who is more than apathetic toward family life, and a daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page) who is nearly an exact replica of her role-model father.
However, Lawrence’s life becomes even more chaotic when an accident forces him to have his lazy but common-sense-driven adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), become his chauffeur, and then ends falls in love with the doctor who treats him, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker).
The strength of the film lies inherently on its cast of heavy-hitters. Quaid and Parker back the film with their star power along with the up-and-coming Ellen Page. But it is Church who steals the spotlight, as he nearly always brightens up every scene he is in and delivers some of the funniest moments throughout the film. He embodies the fun and common- sense reality of the film’s overall message. It is also fun to see how scenarios transpire as “Smart People” usually works in a cause-and-effect affair and the ideas are inherently whole-hearted.
However, that is where the fun and festivities end. The biggest flaw that gnaws at the film is its confusion as to what it accomplishes, giving the audience a dark, rich comedy or an intelligent but light-hearted drama. Instead, it tries to merge both, without much success, as the plot weaves back and forth from a hilarious set-up to an awkward moment with very little transition in between. This leads to the film’s second inherent problem: very drab script filled with witty banter, but little flavor in emotional content.
These “Smart People,” with the exclusion of Chuck, are a very unlikable group that could be workable in a film that embraces just its dark comedy roots, yet the core of this film is about lightening up. The characters have a lot of very intelligent conversations, which become tedious by the second act of the movie as it seems that they have changed very little. The end result is more of a puzzled and dissatisfied look at this group of characters, rather than a poignant and reformed sense of growth.
“Smart People” has a wonderful cast and some genuinely funny parts. However, the film’s script and pacing ultimately get the better of it, choosing to invest heavily in the diction rather than the direction. It seems confused as to which genre to embrace: a dark comedy or a lighter-hearted drama, and executes neither well. Ultimately, the modern comedy-drama needs more than flowery language to impress audiences

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