Sunday, April 13, 2008

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Posted By on Sun, Apr 13, 2008 at 11:08 AM

MOVIEGOER REVIEW:  SMART PEOPLE

It is not uncommon for films about quirky intellectuals to strike our fancy.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney were brooding smarties in "The Savages," which played late last year.  Paul Giamatti was an unaccomplished writer unable to get a novel published in "Sideways."  Frustrated high-caliber thinkers were, for decades, staples of Woody Allen's finer works.   Max von Sydow, Judy Davis and Mr. Allen himself have played roles of the hyper-cultured unable to co-exist with the less sophisticated world around them.  And there's Jeff Daniels, whose performance as Bernard Berkman in "The Squid and the Whale" is the filet of the frustrated smartie.

This is to say that Mr. Quaid has large blazer of Harris tweed to fill as Lawrence Wetherhold in the intelligent and funny “Smart People,” directed by Noam Murro. Lawrence is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon.  He's a miserable guy who treats his students and his colleagues with disdain, not to mention failing to adhere to university parking codes.  He's raising a daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), who possesses his intellectual prowess.  She too despises those less intelligent, and she doesn't have any friends as a result.  Lawrence's son, James (Ashton Holmes), is a promising poet who, unlike Vanessa, appears repulsed by their behavior. 

Lawrence gets himself into a fix when he falls while trying to climb a fence.  He can't drive so he's left to the company of his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to get him from place to place.  His doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student, hasn't seemed to get over her school girl crush and agrees to a night of adult fun with Lawrence that evolves into the film's emotional core.

It's difficult to talk about "Smart People" in a linear fashion because there are so many detours away from the film's central plot.   There's an unplanned pregnancy, a poem sold to the New Yorker, a book deal, a college acceptance and relationship that borders on incest.  These are each quite interesting, but to explore any one of them in depth would have further muddied the film's salty waters.

But the film still makes its point, well, actually because of Mr. Quaid and Mr. Church who banter around in hilarious fashion like the non-biologically connected brothers that they are.  Ms. Page, who destroyed the screen in "Juno" en route to an Academy Award nomination, is a fine addition.  She plays a spunky young Republican with ease.  But she's a nasty little whiz; she asks her classmates to their faces what it's like to be stupid.

If there's anything expected in "Smart People," it’s that the circumstances they face force them to change, only slightly, to allow them to better cope with the outside world.  But the filmmakers don't force them to undergo such drastic changes so as to hide their imperfections.  They hold their true nature in tact; a realistic calculation, and a smart one.

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