- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Miramax Films
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ver the last few years, the oft-ignored dark comedy has experienced a welcome return to Hollywood in the form of independent films headlined by A-list actors. From “Sideways” to “Little Miss Sunshine,” misery has suddenly become funny again, and with Miramax’s latest dramedy, “Smart People,” that trend doesn’t look to be ending any time soon. Written and directed by first-time filmmakers Mark Poirier and Noam Murro (respectively), the Sundance crowd-pleaser may not sound like an entirely original premise, but it packs just enough of a snarky wallop to make it stand out from the rest.
Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, a pompous English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Generally hated by all of his students (past and present), Lawrence has become an even bigger curmudgeon since the death of his wife. When he winds up in the ER after a silly attempt at accessing his car from the impound garage, Lawrence meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of his whom he decides to pursue romantically. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to help around the house, but instead of doing what he's told, he diverts his attention to Lawrence’s teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page) who, in the midst of training to become the perfect Young Republican, has completely forgotten to have some fun.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a dysfunctional family like the Wetherholds on the big screen before (“The Squid & the Whale” being the best example), but director Noam Murro does a great job of presenting the material in a way that doesn’t feel like a complete retread of previous films. It also helps when you’re working from such a strong script, and though Mark Poirier is definitely no Diablo Cody, his dialogue is littered with the same style of acerbic wit. Granted, Poirier’s script isn’t quite as jam-packed with the stuff, but he knows exactly when to unleash it. Utilizing Chuck as the vehicle for a majority of the film’s clever one-liners, Lawrence’s slacker brother (whom he never lets forget is adopted) may not be the world’s best role model, but he’s probably the film’s most stable character.
As you can imagine, Thomas Haden Church has a field day with the material, and his performance is so funny that it might just nab him another Supporting Actor nomination come awards time. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page are equally good as the misanthropic father-daughter pair of intellects, while Sarah Jessica Parker has the unfortunate task of playing the normal (and thus totally uninteresting) love interest. Rounding out the cast is Ashton Holmes (“A History of Violence”) as Lawrence’s eldest child, but he plays such a small role in the grand scheme of the story that it should have just been left on the editing room floor.
It might not have helped with the pacing, which is surprisingly slow for a 95-minute movie, but onscreen relationship between Page and Church would have benefited greatly from some additional time. Though their storyline is the more promising of the two, it sort of just peters out following an awkward turn of events that finds Vanessa revealing inappropriate feelings for her uncle. It’s all remedied by the end, thankfully, but it could have destroyed Poirier’s impressive debut had he decided to go the other route. Just be glad he didn’t, because the film is better for it. A funny and surprisingly warm-hearted dark comedy, “Smart People” may not play to the masses like “Little Miss Sunshine,” but it’s almost every bit as good.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The movie may be about overachievers, but the single-disc release of “Smart People” is incredibly average. All of the basics are here, but there's nothing particularly captivating about any of it. The audio commentary with director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier is dull, the deleted scenes have been rightfully cut, and the making-of featurette ("The Smartest People") feels a little too much like an EPK. The one saving grace is the included gag reel, which features a pre-"Juno" Ellen Page calling out Oscar nominee Thomas Hayden Church for botching a line.