Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page
Directed by: Noam Murro
Written by: Mark Poirier (debut)
Director Noam Murro isn’t director/writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) when it comes to scathing witticism between family members, but in his feature film debut “Smart People,” he manages to get in a few solid shots below the belt to give his characters enough spirit to last them through the entire fight.
In “Smart People,” Murro and screenwriter Mark Poirier tell the snarky story of the dysfunctional albeit intellectual Weatherhold family, who are well aware of their above average intelligence and carry themselves in such a manner.
Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), is a tenured college professor who doesn’t really like teaching anymore and always seems on edge probably because his manuscript is continually being rejected by important publishing houses. His daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), is basically the mirror image of her father – bookish, lonely, and a tad mean. Her only worries in life include the number of academically-admirable extracurricular activities she can add to her resume and scoring a 1600 on the SAT. There’s also a brother character, but his role in the film is inconsequential except for the childish arguments he has with his sister.
When Lawrence suffers a seizure after falling from a fence while trying to illegally retrieve something from his impounded car, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Paker) orders him to follow the law and stop driving for six months. With no one in the family willing to step up and become their dad’s chauffer, Lawrence’s slacker (and adopted) brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) moves in despite objection from Lawrence who knows the only reason he is volunteering is because he wants something.
With everyone under one roof, the family dynamic becomes more uncomfortable as Chuck attempts to get his niece out of her shell and Lawrence jumps into the dating scene again by asking the good doctor Hartigan out for dinner. At times, it almost feels like “The Royal Tenenbaums” with less snappiness and stylistic fervor.
The film hosts a wonderful, offbeat cast especially with Church as the cool, middle-aged uncle who smokes out and buys beer for his teenage niece. Call Church officially reestablished in the industry. With a gem like “Sideways” and now this, he can be a nice addition to any cast. The same goes for Page, who is coming off her best year as a young actress for her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of the titular character in “Juno.” In “Smart People,” she’s just as charming, but in a depressing and Republican sort of way.
In all, “Smart People” is a cleverly-written little picture that will probably slide under the radar unless your part of the indie house crowd. If you’re not, you’re definitely missing out on a stark, character-driven dark comedy that anyone with a bit of a snobby side can enjoy.