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It is tempting to call Noam Murro's Smart People a chamber movie, but this would be misleadingly literal. Smart People is not the work of a tightly-knit ensemble cast à la Mike Leigh. There aren't many scenes for more than three of the principal players, and when everyone does get together, nothing much happens. Smart People is about people who test well — and how they're often not very smart. One of the ways in which the film signals this want of practical intelligence is the amount of time that its characters spend in a dark and charmless house, all but unconscious of their environment. That is why it is tempting to call Smart People a chamber opera. A lot of it takes place in chambers. Mr Murro's courageous reliance on scenes that lack obvious interest and appeal eventually forces us to enter into the dismal solitude to which a university professor, his daughter, his (adopted) brother, and a former student who is now a doctor have all become acclimatized. These people not only don't have any friends, they barely have one another.
Smart People is also very much about mourning — mourning gone wrong, mourning ossified in an awkward transitional state between grief and happiness. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), our professor, has lost his wife some years back, but he still holds on to all her clothes. She was pretty and intelligent and evidently the light of Wetherhold's life, which now makes do without one. Wetherhold's reputation as a lousy professor who couldn't care less about his students is firmly established in the film's opening scenes. What takes a little longer to grasp is that Wetherhold isn't getting his academic obligations out of the way so that he can pursue something that interests him. Nothing interests him, not even his latest book, which has been called "unpublishable" by one editor. They way he holds the manuscript is not the way an eager writer clutches his pages as if they were his child. The new "book" is simply another disappointment in Wetherhold's life.
Wetherhold's limbo can't go on indefinitely; his very bright daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page) is about to leave for a college that will turn out to be Stanford, far from her father's Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. (Carnegie-Mellon appears to have been chosen in order to provide a thoroughly depressing setting; the movie, set in winter, features the drab gloom of Middle-Atlantic winters as if it were a character in its own right.) His son, James (Ashton Holmes), is already a student at Carnegie-Mellon, which is why Vanessa, who fancies herself far smarter than her brother, is determined to go almost anywhere else. Then there is Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Wetherhold's good-natured but mildly ne'er-do-well brother, whose status as "adopted" seems to explain his shortcomings in the grey-matter department. Chuck shows up, broke. Wetherhold would throw him out if it weren't for the event that precipitates the film's action. Attempting to rescue a briefcase from his car, which has been impounded by campus authorities because Wetherhold can't be bothered to park it properly, the professor falls from a fence and suffers a concussion. There are no permanent after-effects, but his emergency-room physician advises him that the law requires her to report him as ineligible to drive for six months. Chuck is suddenly necessary as a chauffeur, although it's clear in advance that he won't be a very reliable one.
That emergency-room physician, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), is former student of Wetherhold's who had a big crush on him as a student. In spite of which, he gave her a C and wrote dismissively of her thesis. If Smart People has a serious failing, it's an inattentiveness to motivation, which Mr Murro seems to be comfortable with expecting the audience to read as understood. It's to Ms Parker's credit that her performance thoroughly denatures any charge that an attractive young woman such as she herself is in real life would become involved with Mr Quaid's damaged goods. The more we see of Janet — we don't really get to know her, or anybody else, for that matter, in any expository way — the more closely she bears a sisterly relationship to the neurotically unhappy woman that Ms Parker played in The Family Stone. If Janet is neurotic, she's much quieter about it, but she's just as unhappy.
Mr Quaid's Wetherhold is no less convincingly drawn to Janet so strongly that it surprises him. It takes him a while to realize that he cannot pursue the living woman without putting the dead one to rest once and for all, but Mr Murro shows the steps of Wetherhold's ascent of the emotional learning curve with all the patience that Ingmar Bergman lavished on descents. Smart People, however, is a debut for the director. He will be allowed a certain over-reliance upon the brilliant Ms Page to concoct a part out of bits and piece of the work of Ann Blythe (whom she uncannily resembles) and Eve Arden (whose arch timing she has already mastered) in Mildred Pierce. Smart People would be shorter and quite a bit less entertaining without Vanessa's snappy comebacks, but, dramatically, the girl is hardly more than a spectator. Even her brother is more engaged in the plot; his surprise publication of a poem in The New Yorker goads his father to make the most of his own book, which, repositioned and retitled (You Can't Read) is taken on by Penguin as a controversial and provocative "bully" book. Although there are moments when Wetherhold appears to have failed to protect his daughter from certain premature challenges, Vanessa always lands on her feet all by herself.
Everything depends, then, on what sort of film one expects Smart People to be. As a romantic comedy, it's almost a bomb. It's not very funny, and it's meager plot is simply constipated. As a more European inquiry into the look of life as it is lived by intelligent people, executed with a skill that allows them to be boring to themselves but enlightening to us, Smart People is both interesting and moving. In the place ordinarily occupied by a script, Smart People offers proof of a very serious collaboration between the director and his actors: the work of Mr Quaid, Ms Parker, and Mr Haden Church is engrossed with vivid meaning by the camera. We are never unaware that Wetherhold and Janet are products of very different kinds of academic endeavor; they have to get round their smarts in order to connect. It's nice to think that Smart People might be appreciated as the quiet masterpiece of filmmaking that it is. (April 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press