Smart people sometimes do stupid things. That tends to be because they’re not all-around smart, they’re book smart or worldly smart or people smart but certainly not all around smart. In the case of Smart People, the people in question are most definitely book smart, and unquestionably less good with people.
Noam Murro, in his directorial debut, tells the tale of a widower professor, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), his two children, and adopted brother. It is a small tale about average people and the day-to-day things that happen in their lives. It is funny and sweet and absolutely captivating for its entire 95 minute runtime.
Wetherhold is a horrible English professor, the kind who cannot remember his students’ names (no matter how many classes of his they take) and who can take any subject and suck the life right of it. He, apparently, has been a miserable man for years on end and doesn’t mind sucking those around him into his depression. His daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), and his son, James (Ashton Holmes), try their best to avoid getting sucked in, but are not always terribly successful. James does a better job than Vanessa, but that is mostly due to the fact that he is in college (the same one his father teaches at) while Vanessa still lives at home.
The family’s life does end up changing though with their arrival of Lawrence’s ne’er-do-well adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) and a freak trip to the hospital which results in Lawrence’s finding a love interest in his doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). From there, the film explores the beginning of the romantic relationship, the dysfunctions of family, and everyday life.
Normally films that explore such topics are preachy, their goal seems to be to “blow the lid” off of quiet suburban life, to show its seedy underbelly and how things are always boiling just below the surface. Smart People eschews that repugnant goal. The film is not about exposing what we all know to be there, but rather about people trying to make their lives better. It is about people struggling to find their way, not always succeeding, but always trying.
Some of the characters, like Thomas Haden Church’s Chuck, definitely have a familiar feel to them. Chuck is the freeloader who actually has more to him than most people think. Page’s Vanessa is also instantly recognizable as the too-smart-for-her-years teenager. Even Lawrence, as the angry, heartbroken, professor, is too easily identified. It’s a slight disappointment in this otherwise outstanding film, but one that is made up for (at least partially) by the performances of the actors in the roles. They all turn in wonderful performances, turning these sometimes less than three dimensional characters into fully fleshed out human beings.
Smart People is currently available on DVD. The release contains a behind-the-scenes documentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, and a commentary track with Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier.
If you’re looking for loud, over-the-top action, this is certainly not the film for you. If you want a simple, down-to-earth, tale of real people and actors delivering solid performances, you will not walk away disappointed.