April 30, 2008

Smart People Review


Length: 95 min

Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.

Précis: Dull romantic comedy about a grouchy widower’s new relationship, and his smart but slightly strange family.

Review by Matt:

If you’re going to do a dysfunctional-family comedy, you’d better make it sharp. Dysfunctional families have remained the rage, especially since The Simpsons took the Cosby-family-backlash and really made it supreme. Arrested Development, Little Miss Sunshine, Wes Anderson films… there’s a lot of sophisticated dysfunctional-family comedy out there. Sadly, Smart People is a forgettable addition to the genre. It flutters blandly around the theme of “smart but dysfunctional” and sketches out a few ideas that don’t go anywhere interesting. Worse, despite its “alternative” pretensions, it succumbs to romantic comedy conventions in a cloyingly contrived fashion.

Leading the tedium is Dennis Quaid who plays an irritable, widowed University professor called Lawrence Wetherhold (a professor’s name if ever I’ve heard one). Lawrence has the book-smarts, but is totally insensitive when it comes to people. He’s raising a similar little misanthrope in his teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a success-obsessed Republican, who goes around fussing, achieving, and lambasting any non-achievement-focussed decision (hello to Michael J Fox in Family Ties). Evidently, Lawrence is also alienating his son James (Ashton Homes), a character revelation announced by James whenever his Dad drops by his college dorm. Lowest ranked in the family is incorrigible slacker Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), Lawrence’s adoped brother. Chuck has come to stay with the family, seemingly to chauffer Lawrence, who is unable to drive, but in reality he’s there for some mooching. The plot of Smart People looks briefly at all of these characters. Primarily though it follows Lawrence’s fumbling foray into romance with his emergency room doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), and the necessary redesigning of Lawrence’s cranky character so that the relationship can work.

It’s this undeveloped romance that is the killer blow to Smart People’s appeal. It goes through the holy trinity of weakly written romance. Firstly, the romance seems baseless. Why do they like each other? Nobody knows. Secondly, the couple sort of share a moment and then bam! – straight into bed together. Thirdly, there’s a halfway-point squabble to overcome. Even the squabble seems unnatural and unjustified. This trite trifecta all seems a lazy cheat because it was too difficult to write an honest path from friendship to love. To top it off, the characters are unlikeable. Dennis Quaid at least plays his moody intellectual well. But Sarah Jessica Parker is a flimsy piece of tissue paper, occasionally pulling coy looks, but giving nothing else to her already empty character.

The film’s other main characters, Vanessa and Chuck, are much more interesting. Ellen Page is lippy but damaged as Vanessa, like a reconfiguration of her character in Juno. The interesting subplot looking at her relationship with Chuck, her exact opposite, is only given a cursory treatment. Chuck alone is one of the best parts of the film, taking most of the good lines – but he only pops in occasionally like a comic-relief clown. Other comedy potential is also washed away in the tide of the predictable romance plot. Humorous avenues entice you, but then are quickly closed again.

Obviously it’s a frustrating result. There’s potential, but all the interesting characters and plot pieces have just been loosely sketched. Engaging ideas surface but float away to drown in the miserable romance and the “lessons in life”. Smart people will probably skip this film and watch something smarter.



  1. great review zippyfish – it’s great how you just tell it like it is. I’d been curious about this film because of Ellen Page, but heck, I might just wait till her next appearance after reading this. I’ll keep an eye out for your next recommendation!

  2. segregated says : I absolutely agree with this !

  3. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Cockerel

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