Sarah Jessica Parker
Thomas Haden Church
With the steady Oprah Winfrication of American politics and society, American culture, including its “indie” movie subset, feels increasingly anti-intellectual. Or if not wholly anti, then certainly uncomfortable with old nostrums about keeping the head and the heart out of each others affairs. In movies like Sideways, The Savages and The Squid and the Whale, generally starring Laura Linney although not this one, surprisingly academics find themselves confronted with deep truths that have been sublimated an example of modern “emotional incorrectness” by their work.
Whether youre a fan of this state of affairs (and it is culturally very significant) should always take second place to how successfully it is portrayed. Does the journey from uptight/frustrated/melancholy man (or woman, but usually man) convince, entertain and shed a little insight into the human condition? In the case of Smart People, the answer is no, not really.
Hollywood low-light Dennis Quaid is the Miss Haversham-like Professor of Victorian Literature Laurence Wetherhold (surely not an insignificant choice of surname?), whose long-term failure to deal with the grief of losing his wife has made him a mild misanthrope who cares so little about his students that he doesnt even bother to try and remember their names.
The blue flames are (inconsistently) fanned by his Young Republican daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), an intellectual snob whose politics are presumably meant as a shorthand for understanding her lack of empathy with her species. When Laurence is hospitalised trying to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car, he meets, and fails to recognise, ex-student turned E.R. doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who bears an intellectual grudge against him and the stage is set for a stand-off.
Since comedy, rather than tragedy, is the storys motor, an anti-intellectual but revitalising catalyst for change is key. Someone along the lines of an older/younger sibling who is living a “real” life outside these ivory towers, who is in touch with his feelings and who, frankly, is not given to thinking too hard about stuff. Step forward Thomas Haden Church as Laurences neer-do-well adopted brother Chuck to nurture these emotional releases and try to bring the others to the full estate of man and woman while himself learning some valuable lessons about responsibility.
Its all terribly earnest. Performed brilliantly by the cast and lightened by wry, sarcastic humour (another nail in the coffin for the “Americans dont get irony” chestnut), the word “closure” always seems far too near to the surface. We sense what is going to happen within the first half of the first act and from there its a rather predictable ride to the end as we clunk across the turning points to get to a satisfactory conclusion.
This hokey jaunt is not actually assisted by the wearing superciliousness of the excellent Page and the O.C.-esque folk rock score by soundtrack newcomer Nuno Bettencourt (he of More than Words/Extreme fame) who bluntly over scores every emotional scene with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, turning this into the filmic equivalent of the jukebox musical. There is an overwhelming sense of the viewer constantly being “set up” emotionally throughout the narrative which simply wont do in the sophisticated world of story-telling.
That said, the ride is not unpleasant the dialogue snaps along and the cast really turn on the performances (although the heavy hand of an executive producer seems to have been present in the casting of the 43-year old Sarah Jessica Parker as a woman ten years younger). Perhaps it is time, though, for new writers to do a very anti-Oprah thing and “snap out of it” either stop providing trying to provide easy feel-good emotional answers to complex problems or better still spend a bit more time writing things like Little Miss Sunshine and cheer us all up.