Smart People (Miramax Films, R)

smart75.jpgThis type of film hinges on the cast, and the ensemble here is tremendous. Dennis Quaid leads with one his best performances ever as the stodgy widowed professor and patriarch of a seriously dysfunctional family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The debut effort of director Noam Murro, Smart People, is being billed as “from the producer of Sideways,” and while Michael London is one of several producers credited, the connection here is much deeper. Like Sideways, Smart People is a wonderful character-driven narrative where the dark, depressed people in the film could easily live on your block struggling against obstacles generally of their own creation. The film can be categorized as a dark comedy, and is being advertised by Miramax as one, but it really is a drama about sad lonely people desperately trying to make connections in the world with some laughs thrown in because the only thing these sad and lonely people have going for them is they still retain the ability to realize how absurd their lives are.

This type of film hinges on the cast, and the ensemble here is tremendous. Dennis Quaid leads with one his best performances ever as the stodgy widowed professor and patriarch of a seriously dysfunctional family. Quaid’s Lawrence Wetherhold, shuffles through life disgusted having given up on everything—his career, his book, his students, his peers, his life, and his children. Quaid imbues his professor’s every gesture with fatigue and resignation and at the same time a deep internal struggle against that resignation. His movement through the frame says so much about the man without ever seeming heavy-handed or melodramatic. Quaid is a master of the everyman and here he layers his regular guy behind a pompous windbag persona.

Wetherhold lives with his college-bound daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) whose overachieving Stepford wife and barely veiled Electra complex, makes her pregnant teenager in Juno seem well rounded and together. Page masters the wit and sarcasm that Vanessa uses to keep people at a distance and mask insecurities and grief. She adroitly turns the word physician into a scathing insult. While her character could have easily devolved into caricature, Page imbues Vanessa with a haunting depth and vulnerability that makes her not only tolerable but almost likable.

Ashton Holmes as Quaid’s son James is essentially estranged. Holmes is great in his few scenes and the underdevelopment of his character is the film’s only flaw. James seems to function as a device, appearing to advance the plot rather than becoming a true person, but this is a truly minor complaint.

Joining the family is the professor’s adopted brother, Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church, who may be in line for another Oscar nomination. By providing brilliant support with both pitch perfect comic timing and the gravity holding the characters together, Church simply triumphs as the slacker with surface connections to his character in Sideways, but here he is more self aware and satisfied. Church takes Chuck in new directions and his handling of one of the films most delicate aspects is both believable and interesting.

Sarah Jessica Parker is better than her usual self as a doctor, former student, and love interest of the professor. Here she forgoes the glamour look and allows her character an aptly haggard appearance.

There is not much of a plot, but in a good way. The writing, direction, and superb cast all keep the pace moving creating a sublime portrait of everyday life in all its repugnant glory. | Bobby Kirk

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