Friday, August 29, 2008

MOVIES- Smart People do the Craziest Things

SMART PEOPLE is a movie about how “smart” people are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life and are no better equipped to deal with them than anyone else. To give you an idea of how this works I’m going to break with tradition and give you a short synopsis.

Lawrence is a literature professor who is falling apart after the death of his wife. He is having trouble getting published, angling to become head of the English department, and universally thought of as a jerk. He can’t remember the names of his students (a silly notion considering that he seems to lecture to large groups in auditoriums) and he parks his car with wild disregard for convention. This last trait lands his car in the college impound lot where, after a nasty exchange with the lot attendant (an ex-student), he winds up giving himself a concussion trying to retrieve the manuscript of his unsold book from the car. Waking in the Emergency Room of the local hospital he finds himself being treated by an attractive (?) female doctor (yet another ex-student who harbors a crush after all these years). Calls are placed to his home, where his daughter is too busy studying for the SATs to rescue him and his wayward half-brother, who has landed in his crib because he has no where else to go, is too stoned to care. Eventually the daughter picks him up and the rest of the movie is comprised of the daughter’s hesitance to allow another woman into the house, her attraction to the half-brother (who seems to be the first person of either sex to have ever paid any attention to her), and her father’s troubled courtship of the ER physician who turned to medicine when he gave her research paper a “C”. As the plot thickens, the ER physician finds out that she is pregnant, the romance is off, the daughter is rebuffed by the half-brother, and Lawrence takes himself out of the running for Department Head after his book is “edited” into another self-help monstrosity fit only for the kind of people who find Oprah profound. In spite of all this everything winds up tied in a little bow during the credits when we find out that, well, everybody lived happily ever after. It is a Hollywood movie, after all, even if people talk about the poetry of William Carlos Williams while waiting for the happy ending.

(The poem the characters refer to is William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”. It’s a wonderful poem and though it’s only 15 words in 5 stanzas, it paints an indelible mental picture. However the poem is a striking example of how biographical criticism (as literary criticism of any type should) illuminates the work of an author. It is said that Williams poem was written when he (a physician) found himself in a situation where all his medical skills could not save a young patient. As the patient lay dying he looked across the bed and out the window, seeing the image caught in the few words and lines of his famous poem. Given the background, the poem is a microcosm of the movies themes- no matter how smart you are there are going to be losses in your life and there is nothing you can do about it but savor the days you have left.)

That author and screenwriter Mark Poirier would pick this poem in just one example of the careful screenwriting that is this movie’s best attribute. The dialog is clever and several times laugh out loud funny. But from there things start to go downhill-.not terribly, just enough to keep this good movie from being a great one.

Unfortunately while the script is good it is also one of the film’s faults. The plot is overwrought, combining too many contrivances (see above synopsis) and threads, some of which are pay off so quickly that you are left wondering if you missed something at the end. But that’s excusable in a character driven drama that has almost no action. A minor annoyance that slightly harms the movie’s impact.

The cast is another minor disappointment. In spite of having actors whose work I generally enjoy, I found the performances a little too subdued. Again this may just be the nature of talking-head character drama, but no one seems to show any emotion. Thomas Haden Church plays a goof with undertones of intelligence well (he should, it’s becoming his trademark), and gives the best performance of the movie. Sarah Jessica Parker is adequate and says her lines clearly. Ellen Page acts like a smart-assed 16 year old Mr. Spock just like she did in Juno. The performances aren’t bad, just uninspired.

That is, except for Dennis Quaid. Whoever thought of casting Quaid as a literature professor who can’t get laid must have been thinking that it was a stretch that he could pull off. He tries. He pooches out his belly and draws up his shoulders in a sort of caricature of an academic. He limits the grinning that usually suffices for his acting repertoire. But he just doesn’t have the acting chops for the role. As a result the lead character in a movie called SMART PEOPLE never really gives you the impression that he’s very smart.

The other problem is the directing. I was also underwhelmed by the direction but again was willing to just chalk it up to the type of movie this is. However even with that in mind it’s still lackluster. First time director Noam Murro moves the camera little and frames a succession of medium shots, making the movie seem even more tedious than it should have been. Again, this isn’t a glaring problem, just another little difficulty that hurts the movie slightly.

My apathy for the director was increased during the supplemental audio track, which he shares with the writer. Frankly, he comes off as a jerk. I only listened to about the first 15 minutes of it (which is unusual for me) because not only did he not seem to have anything interesting to say, he also seemed determined to stop Mr. Poirier from saying anything interesting either. At one point when Poirier is about to tell a story about Sarah Jessica Parker’s driving skill, Murro actually cuts him off in mid sentence implying that it’s inappropriate! I guess he hasn’t listened to a disc commentary before. He sounded presumptuous and condescending and I was rooting for Poirier to remind him that he wasn’t directing anymore so he could relax.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie. It’s sometimes brave. There is a definite ‘Ewwww” factor here for just about everyone. Whether it’s incest, pedophilia, or the point where I had to look away from the screen- middle aged Dennis Quaid and Sarah Parker in bed. The movie tries to deal with the uncomfortable parts of life. There is one scene that stands out for me. When Ellen Page asks a party girl how it feels to be stupid. The scene alone is worth watching the movie. For both geeks and mundanes to understand each other.

In spite of all this, SMART PEOPLE is a good movie, still worth seeing because the dialogue is sharp and there are a couple of scenes that save it. But I’m left with the feeling that with a little script doctoring (lose the son’s plot line- it never goes anywhere), a different lead (William Hurt or James Woods come to mind), and better direction it could have been a lot better.

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