As much as many people would like to deny we live in a classed society. Sure, it is not as well defined or regulated as the caste systems that still survive around the world but there are socially proscribed classes here in America. All men may be created equal but how they live and the potential they have is often described by where and to whom they are born. Because of this the topic has come up numerous times as the main theme for films. Even as long ago as the silent film era Charlie Chaplin’s character ‘The Little Tramp’ made light of the gap between the rich and endowed and the working class. Since the predominate members of a movie’s audience are in the working class the plot of films usually hold the upper class up to the light of satire if not outright lampooning. One of the latest films to hit the DVD shelves on this topic is ‘Smart People’ Indy film maker Noam Murro. This film takes on the intellectual that walk the halls of academia. This movie crosses several genres along the way. It has elements of the romantic comedy drama and parody all rolled into one flick. The film does have its faults but overall it was an enjoyable movie to watch. It is a movie about family but with its ‘R’ rating is not a family film in any sense. ‘Smart People’ is very much an actor’s flick. The strong cast is for the most part well used and able to showcase their considerable talents. The movie has made the usual global festival circuit starting in January 2008 appearance in the much lauded Sundance Film Festival where it was an official seleciton. It did earn a modest sum at the box office that should have more than covered the budget of the flick; always a good thing for the distributor. Now it is available on DVD through the Miramax division of the Weinstein Company so if you missed it’s brief theatrical run you can enjoy it in the comfort of your home.
The author of this screen play is Mark Poirier. It is also his freshman work and in some respect this fact is self evident. He starts off pretty strong by introducing some quirky characters and establishing the preliminary relationships. There seems to be a sharp division between the two halves of the story. Characters that are beginning to get really interesting are pushed into the background while secondary plot lines take over the story. Some minor characters are used and then just discarded almost completely. This breaks up the flow of the story so that most of situations come off as derived with dialogue that is forced and unnatural. On the up side the main themes are ones we have all seen many times but there are some interesting variations on them. At its core this is a look at the upper intellectual class and how dysfunctional they are. Poirier needs some more practice in combining drama and comedy. This is a difficult genre to master and given time he will certain rise to the occasion. The most troublesome thing about the script is there are glimpses of brilliance that still manage to shine through. What it comes down to is a need for some reorganization of the story lines and their presentation.
This is the first time in the director’s chair for Noam Murro and he does very well. His style is straightforward without too many of the annoy film school project tricks most freshman directors feel obligated to use. He brings more out of the scrip than it would seem possible. Murro has a way of presenting these highly messed up people with compassion and that goes a long way to save this film. He seems to understand the nature of the problems here and relates the tale to the viewers in a manner that we cannot help but try to empathize with the characters. He takes characters living in an academic world many are unfamiliar with and brings them down to a level where the entire audience can identify with them. These are smart people, as the title announces, but they are as lost in the world as any of us. This opens the film up to a level that many independent films over look.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. Some time ago he lost his beloved wife and has been struggling with life after her. At work he is distant and uninterested in his students. On those occasions where he does deem to speak to them he is belligerent often referring to their academic shortfalls. This has resulted in declining student evaluations. As many troubles are there for him in the classroom even more follow him home. His shiftless adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) came to visit and borrow money and never left. Lawrence has two grown children; James (Ashton Holmes) a freshman at the university and seventeen year old Vanessa (Ellen Page) who still lives at home. She is a clock wound too tightly. She tries to keep the home running and her father in check but the strain is getting to her. One day in a chance meeting Lawrence comes across a former student, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker). When she was in his class he gave her a failing grade for a term paper. This resulted in her switching majors to pre-med and now she is a doctor. She has always had a school girl crush on the professor and after all her failing grade did help her become a doctor so they arrange for a meeting later on. At that date Lawrence is almost insufferable but Janet is for the most part willing to ignore it. She even shows up unannounced at the Wetherhold Christmas dinner complete with a cake in tow. There is a little technical incest when Chuck gets Vanessa drunk and she makes a pass at him. Chuck not wanting to go there runs off to James’ dormitory to crash there for awhile. Another failure in Lawrence’s life is his inability to get his latest book considered by a single publisher. Vanessa steps in and changes the title to ‘You Can’t Read’ and all of a sudden it is a smash hit. Things begin to look up for the hapless professor as his relationship with Janet deepens.
The best thing here is the cast. They are all consummate professionals with experience in independent films. Quaid is on of the most underappreciated actors for the last couple of decades. His rakish smile is still disarming after all these years. He plays his role with a sense of humanity letting the audience emotionally bond with Lawrence. Church is a quirky character actor who gives his all in every role he takes on. He is simply perfect for the lose brother here. The real star of the film is Page. She has become the latest Indy darling and for good reason; she can carry every scene she appears in. She has that quality that translates so well that the audience has to just love her.
The DVD comes out through the Miramx arm of The Weinstein Company. They are one of the best sources for little Indy flicks that most have overlooked or never heard about. The video is a brilliant 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer accompanied with a Dolby 5.1 audio track. The Blu-ray version sports a robust TrueHD soundtrack. There are some deleted scenes, bloopers and outtakes provided as extras. One of the better additions is the cast and crew interviews. Rounding things off is a commentary by Murro and Poirier. This film takes some missteps but the overall talent on both sides of the screen make it worth while.