Saturday, December 13, 2008

Smart People (2008)

Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a self-absorbed, surly professor who generally appears to hate the world. The bitterness has obvious root, the death of his wife that he hasn't been able to let go. Enter into the plot a former student and ER Doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), and a drifter-type adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Lawrence's life and those of his kids, Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes), are bound to take a slightly different course.

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page do a little bonding

When you boil it down, this movie is really about highly intelligent people that are complete emotional idiots. Every single person in this film is damaged. With some, as I said in the plot, the root of the damage is obvious. Others, you don't know how it happened, but you know the damage is there. These people get through life using their brains as a barrier so that their precious isolationism will be maintained.

The performances, as you would expect from these great actors, are good. I have such a serious fondness for all the actors in this movie. I will spotlight Ellen Page specifically because I think she has one of the most complex roles. She portrays a teenager who has somehow turned into a 40-year-old woman after the death of her mother. She is miserable, has no friends and is so completely invested in her father's life that she appears to be more of a housewife to him than a daughter. She strives for perfection in a vain attempt for her father to appreciate or recognize her. In one of the scenes, she is talking to her Uncle. She reminds him that, "You should really make your bed. It sets the tone for the day." The line alone shows how matriarchal and up-tight she has become since her mother's death. She is really in need of some chaos.

I love that the chaos she needs is injected by her adopted Uncle Chuck. I only point out the adopted fact because that well may be his saving grace in this family. He is obviously not highly intelligent, but he has what the others lack in emotional intelligence. He understands people and actually likes getting to know people. He enters the dysfunctional home and immediately understands that his niece is in the most danger of becoming a wreck of an adult. Thomas Haden Church, who is a great underrated actor, plays the part brilliantly. I like the dichotomy between Chuck and Lawrence as totally opposite brothers, but also because watching Church and Quaid act opposite each other was a cinematic treat.

One other thing I would like to note that I really like about this one is that it isn't the cliched "Here are broken people and by the end they are all fixed" kind of a movie, even though they did go for a happyish ending. The movie is much more subtle than the grand fix gesture. It is not about any of the character's massive change, but rather, about characters trying or wanting to change a little - like in real life. Most people do not go from being a curmudgeon to being the most popular guy on the street. They make small changes like trying to greet someone or smile politely when passing a stranger. Again, not a Hollywood ending and much more like the reality of every day life. I think Quaid sums it up for his character when he says, "I know I'm a miserable asshole, but I do have some hope for myself." Indeed.

I will say that I loved this movie in parts, and in concept and themes, but as a whole didn't quite love it. I think with all the beloved indie actors, the expectations were so high, I was bound to be a bit disappointed perhaps. Something didn't quite gel right for me and even though the movie was short, the plot seemed to creep along in a few places. I didn't quite buy all of the characters because they weren't developed enough. I blame most of this on the newbie director as I think with a more capable one, this movie really could have been so much better. But, I did like it and am glad I had the chance to watch it. You will like this one if you are really into character-driven independents (like myself) or are a completionist and want to see all of the work by one of the actors in this one. Otherwise, sadly, I think you will find it a bit dull so you might consider skipping it.

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