Thursday, 15 May 2008

Smart People

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Too many over-familiar indie movie trappings to be essential viewing, but worth checking out for its well-written characters and great performances.

Full review:

A little film with a big cast, Smart People could easily be dismissed as yet another self-involved indie flick in the style made popular by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach et al. But under the familiar surface are some interesting and well-drawn characters, brought to life by strong performances from Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page in particular. The film, from debut directing/writing team Noam Murro and Mark Poirier, takes a gently humorous look at the lives of a family of intellectually ‘smart’ people who, it becomes painfully clear, have no idea how to engage with the real world.

Quaid plays Lawrence, a widowed university professor who lives a selfish existence ignoring the emotional needs of his two teenage children, and is none too pleased when his adopted slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) turns up in need of somewhere to live. Matters are complicated further when Lawrence ends up in the ER after some ill-advised trespassing, and there encounters Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an old student of his and now head of the ER. A romantic connection of sorts ensues, but only serves to highlight Lawrence’s complete inability to connect meaningfully with others.

Similarly stunted in her emotional growth is Vanessa (Page), Lawrence’s daughter, an uptight and old-before-her-time Young Republican whose sole focus is on getting a perfect score in her SATs. Vanessa’s quick wit and sharp tongue make her immediately reminiscent of Juno MacGuff, but in truth she is a much more complex character, in denial of her own neediness, leading to a fumbling attempt to get closer to the bemused Chuck. Page’s performance is marked by the same skill and subtlety that earned her an Oscar nomination for Juno, and is one of the film’s highlights.

Some over-familiar indie movie elements make Smart People difficult to warm to, particularly the seemingly obligatory intrusive acoustic soundtrack, and the initial feeling that we have seen these characters before. In the case of Chuck that’s not too far from the truth, as Church is basically doing the same slobby thing he did, to similarly entertaining effect, in Sideways. There’s also some fudging of issues in the latter third of the film, with things working out much too easily for all concerned; a little more reality wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nowhere near top of its class then, but Smart People has enough interesting elements to mark Murro and Poirier as a creative team to watch.

Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker
Cert: 15
UK release: 16 May

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