originally published in the middlebury campus
The marketing team at Miramax touted their release, Smart People as being a creation “from the makers of Sideways.” I loved Sideways so this little marketing ploy was enough to ensnare me. The problem is that when they said, “from the makers of Sideways” what they really meant was “from the producer of Sideways and also staring Thomas Hayden Church.” Well, if a studio chooses to market their film like this they are inevitably going to invite comparisons and the truth is that Smart People doesn’t hold a candle to Sideways.
Dennis Quaid plays pretentious, aloof, and hated Carnegie Mellon professor of literature Lawrence Wetherhold. His wife died several years earlier and he managed to get himself stuck in a rut of disdain for his colleagues, students and life in general. The only real constant in his life is his budding young Republican daughter, Vanessa (played by Ellen Page) and scornful son. This all changes when, after suffering a seizure while trying steal his car back from the campus impound, he meets the lovely and charming Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). She kindly informs the cantankerous professor that, as a result of his seizure, he is unable to drive for the next six months. This plot development, somewhat fortuitously, coincides with the arrival of his lay about brother (the aforementioned Thomas Hayden Church) who has run out of money and needs a place to stay. As one would expect these characters all work together to bring Dennis Quaid out of his shell, while changing one another in the process.
Smart People is a rather unfortunate case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. The performances by Parker and Quaid are subdued, but still have an air of quirky about them that ensures the film doesn’t feel heavy. However, they are upstaged at every turn by the immeasurably better performances turned in by Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page. The scenes between the two save the film from being unwatchable. Church, who is the embodiment of quirky, plays off the uptight, Nancy Reagan in training Ellen Page perfectly. Page, in particular, needs special recognition. Her range as an actress is impressive; she manages to walk the tightrope between prissy know-it-all and lonely teenager yearning for excitement, with incredible panache and skill. She has proven herself to be an actress that can stand apart from the irritating title character of Juno and does more than simply holds her own alongside the likes of Church and Quaid.
Inevitably, though, these scenes between Church and Page are too few and far between. In fact, Church almost disappears entirely for the films third act, so we are left with Dennis Quaid’s curmudgeon professor. It is an act that very quickly wears out its welcome, and therein lays the problem of the film. Quaid’s character is so unlikable he makes it tough to care about his problems. Generally, an unlikable protagonist is not a problem I have with films, however here the character is so shallowly rendered he is not only unlikable he is also uninteresting. Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways was not the token protagonist. He was not the most likable of characters, but he was an engaging, interesting, and complex character. Dennis Quaid’s Lawrence Wetherhold is none of those things.
The blame doesn’t really lie at the feet of Quaid, though. The script, written by novelist Mark Jude Poirier, doesn’t give Quaid a whole lot to work with. Poirier seems more interested in kind-of-witty one liners than he is in crafting characters of any substance or plot with any drive. I hate to keep harping on this (but since Miramax advertised it this way they were asking for it), but this is what separates Poirier and director Noam Murro from Alexander Payne (writer-director of Sideways). Payne is invested in crafting substantive characters that exist in a world that the audience cares about, and operate within a plot that doesn’t stagnate at the half hour mark. At the end of the film, Smart People feels like a film that had maybe forty-five minutes worth of plot, but was stretched to fill a ninety minute film. This isn’t to say there weren’t entertaining things about Smart People, but it’s a chore to sit through the rest of the film just to get to those good bits. My advice, if you want to take the risk, make liberal use of the fast forward button.