Dir: Noam Murro. US. 2007. 93min.
Noam Murro's debut feature Smart People is somewhat deceptive work in which the primary story of a tentative love affair between a difficult and intellectually arrogant university professor and his former student is constantly usurped by the more interesting dynamics of the man's brilliantly acid tongued daughter and professionally undistinguished adopted brother.
The secondary roles are played by terrific Canadian It girl Ellen Page (Juno) and the sardonic and very funny Thomas Haden Church (continuing his late career resurgence from Sideways).
By contrast, the central parts played by Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker feel somewhat bloodless and less dramatically compelling.
The result is a strange kind of in-between world that has moments of wit and revelation, but the work never quite coheres into a satisfying and complete work. The script is the first produced work of novelist Mark Jude Poirier, and the story's strength is the digressions and asides.
The movie debuted in the Sundance Premiere section in advance of Miramax's April 11 opening.
Quaid and Parker certainly provide a visibility. If Page captures the best actress Academy Award, it could create a boomerang effect, particularly in ancillary markets. Internationally, the movie is less secure given its modesty of scope and range of interests.
The movie is caught in the same emotional register of Sideways and Lost in Translation, sketching a kind of melancholia that colours the emotional consequences of disappointing professional standing.
It also has some startling plot connections to Tom McCarthy's Sundance title The Visitor. Both films feature middle-aged, emotionally cut-off university professors transformed by a beautiful and complicated woman.
Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is cut off, cranky and socially maladroit. He adamantly refuses to acknowledge the talents or intellectual abilities of his students, defiantly refusing to memorise their names.
He is a widower with two young adult children, a college-aged son James (Holmes) and a bright, scarily driven daughter Vanessa (Page) he struggles to understand and communicate with.
A once brilliant career also appears sidetracked, and his book on cultural criticism has been rejected by numerous publishers and deemed unprintable.
His adopted brother Chuck (Church), a stoner and lay about, suddenly turns up and seeks financial help. After suffering a seizure that requires an emergency room stay, Wetherhold is reacquainted with Janet (Parker), a doctor who took his Victorian literature class as a freshman.
Naturally, Wetherhold has no recollection of her, though the meeting sets a motion of series of back and forth conversations that find the two drifting into a tentative romantic relationship.
From the start, the more interesting story unfolds in the equally compacted relationship between Vanessa and Chuck. She's an intense, brainy high school senior with no friends who idolizes Ronald Reagan.
He's a screw-up, but he has a knack of understanding and relating to the young girl and intuitively understands her frustration and profound sense of loss connected to her mother's death.
He gets her to open up (during a very funny moment where he gets her stoned), and the two establish a temporary bond that is suddenly fractured when he takes her to bar and she gets drunk.
Murro's background is in advertising commercials. The movie has a sharp surface, the actors make the work compelling, but the flow feels increasingly episodic and results in a movie that often feels too dramatically inert and reined in.
The director's recurrent habit of flooding his soundtrack with songs whose lyrics emphatically inform the viewer precisely what the characters are feeling is a repeated turn-off.
The Wetherhold character remains a cipher-a scold and know it all. His emotional transformation at the end feels somewhat ungrounded and undeserved. Parker's character is also too fragmentary and elusive.
Like her part in Juno, Page is electric, quick, volatile and scary bright. Church's slow delivery comebacks are worth the price of admission. The film of Page and Church remains the lost opportunity.
Miramax Films (US)
Groundswell Productions (US)
Sherezade and Visitor Pictures (US)
Corduroy Films/Table Top Films Production (US)
QED International (US)
Mark Jude Poirier
Sarah Jessica Parker
Thomas Haden Church