Written by Pollo Misterioso
Smart People is a simple film. It is sometimes predictable, has some small surprises, but is really about the small tragedies that happen in life and most importantly about just being human.
This film, directed by Noam Murro, played at Sundance Film Festival and had a limited release in theaters afterwards. With a small cast of only five characters, all with star power, this is a quintessential indie film.
Dennis Quaid plays English professor Lawrence Wetherhold at Carnegie Melon University. He is stubborn, pompous and painfully miserable with his mediocre life. He has two kids, Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes) and a freeloading brother Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church, who all show up after Lawrence gets into an accident and is unable to drive himself for six months. Due to his accident, he is reunited with an old student Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who is his doctor and love interest.
Lawrence is trying to get his book published and become head of the English department. Both of these events challenge him to think about what is truly important to him and if it is what he really wants. Vanessa acts like a forty-year-old woman stuck in an eighteen-year-old body; she cooks and cleans for the house, all while buried in her studies as she tries to get the perfect SAT score. Her journey begins when her uncle arrives and teaches her that she can have fun and make friends.
In small films like this, when the story is so sharply focused on the development of the characters, the interaction of the ensemble is so important. Bottom line, this cast works. With the delicate subjects explored (this includes an interesting relationship between Vanessa and Chuck), there is a seriousness kept, but never does it become uncomfortable or tragic to watch.
Quaid is perfect in this role. By growing a beard and gaining some weight, he becomes an uncomfortable character to watch, as Lawrence is also uncomfortable with his own changes. There is something endearing and appealing about watching an ordinary man deal with realistic problems.
Playing Dr. Hartigan, it is sometimes hard to see Parker as anything but Carrie Bradshaw, but in this film she pulls it off. With a refreshing new take on a damaged woman, she exudes pain through simple looks and head nods given to the camera.
All of these people are hurt or socially inept in some way. Lawrence’s son is the only one in the family that seems to have gotten out just in time, but even he still harbors a deep resentment towards his family and father. Collectively these people are well educated and well off, but they can’t seem to emotionally pull it together, playing off the title of the film. Smart People shows the common stupidity of life and sometimes it’s just nice that simple films can provide a simple message, showing that we are all alike and that everyone has problems.
There are two DVD extras worth watching for this film. They include “The Smartest People” which is a collection of interviews with the cast and crew that breaks down the film by characters and explains the casting choices. “Not So Smart” is a quick extra that has funny outtakes, showing just how well the cast worked together. Other features include Deleted Scenes and Commentary with the filmmaker and writer.