Smart People (2008)

Smart people is about ordinary people. But unlike the movie Ordinary People, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also about dysfunctional families, but then again, a look around us can testify that the term “dysfunctional’ has more or less become a cliché, or the norm even. So, the story line and characters in Smart People may well be the story about many of us.  We can relate to their situations, or maybe know someone that’s in similar predicament, smart or dumb.

Smart People

The title is an apparent sarcasm. Coincidentally, in my last post I wrote a review on A Room With A View (2007)…imagine the highly-educated but socially inapt Cecil Vyse now a modern day academic, 30 years older, scruffy, paunchy, and ever grumpier… that’s the main character in this movie, professor Lawrence Wetherhold, vividly portrayed by Dennis Quaid. Wetherhold teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, an expert in Victorian literature.  Like Cecil Vyse, he is smart with ideas, but utterly unfit for human relationships. Or, maybe a more accurate way of looking at it is, he has given up being a nice person. He’s self-absorbed, overbearing, and maybe himself a victim too, let us not judge so harshly, for he is a widower drenched in self-pity, who leaves his wife’s whole wardrobe untouched some years after her passing.

Living with such a character is his teen-aged daughter Vanessa, played by Ellen Page. Repeating her impressive performance as in Juno, Page portrays an over-achieving high school senior, who aims at nothing less than a perfect SAT score. Little does she know that underneath her pragmatic and vigorous academic pursuit and Republican stance are her youthful curiosity and desires. So, when Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the wayward adopted brother of her father’s veers into their lives, she is whirled into a pool of confusion. Adding to the complexity of the family relationship is Vanessa’s older brother James (Ashton Holmes), who aspires to be a poet but his Dad doesn’t even know it. James lives on campus where Wetherhold teaches. Despite the physical proximity, father and son could never be more alienated and distanced.

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page

All of their lives begin to take a turn when Wetherhold’s car is impounded for illegal parking and he tries to climb over a fence to retrieve his brief case in the car. His toneless middle-aged physique is no match for the 10-foot wire fence, and so he ends up in the ER with a ‘trauma induced seizure’ after he falls over. That’s where he meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). A former student of his, Janet had a crush on him while a student, but due to his harsh marking and pompous air, decided to change her major from literature to biology. Now years later, Janet has the chance to forge a real and meaningful relationship with Wetherfold, a task she soon finds to be too formidable and senseless for anyone in her right mind.

Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker

But isn’t it true…we’re matched up with impossible people at work, deal with obnoxious clients whom we have to serve, live with incompatible housemates, and stuck with eccentric and embarrassing family members… Smart People’s smart screenplay offers us the chance to laugh at ourselves, and empathize with other’s deficiencies and shortfalls. By learning to put up with them, we might just be learning to live with ourselves. And in the process, as the movie happily winds up, the characters gain a new perspective on themselves and come out as changed persons.

Screened at Sundance earlier this year, the film is teamed up by the relatively new screen writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro. It is rated R in the U. S. and 14A in Canada. Certain scenes may be objectionable to some. But with watching any movie or reading literature, for that matter, they have to be taken in context, and the overall spirit considered.

And, for those looking for smart aleck humor, or fast-paced sequences and an intriguing plot are bound to be disappointed. However, I have precisely appreciated (Professor Wetherhold would be quick to correct me, it should be “appreciated precisely” he’d say) the slower paced story lines that are well-developed along the main characters. The witty dialogues and superb acting from the stellar cast are enjoyable and engaging. A delightful 95 minutes of quiet and intelligent entertainment.

~ ~ ~ Ripples