Monday, April 21, 2008

When Bad Movies Happen To Smart People

I had to walk out of “Smart People.” Director Noam Murro’s dramedy about an unlikable aging widower and college professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) had reached its most melodramatic moment, forcing Lawrence and his doctor-girlfriend Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) into a fabricated argument in the airport security line. I couldn’t watch any more.

Like so many films that long to make eloquent statements about relationships, “Smart People” had fallen into a tired trap – eschewing thoughtfulness and subtlety for action and plot twists. It’s rarely the plot that makes a movie.

For narcissistic English professor Lawrence Wetherhold, life it something merely to get through. He’s already lost the love of his life, his academic writings are continually rejected, his relationships with his temperamental children are strained at best, and when he lands in the hospital after falling off a fence (he was trying to get his car out of the college’s impound lot), he’s reached an all-time low. For someone presented as so demonstrably loathsome so early in a film, it’s hard to feel sorry for him.

While in the hospital, Lawrence is attended to by Janet Hartigan (Parker), whom we come to find out was a former English student of his, burned so badly by his gruff and uncaring cynicism, she dropped English to pursue medicine. And yet, in order to adhere to cinema’s formulaic rules, Janet and Lawrence agree to go out and start a relationship.

Meanwhile, Lawrence’s adopted slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) is brought in as a driver for Lawrence, since he is under strict orders not to get behind the wheel. While Chuck adds a much-needed dose of humor, he too comes off as a bit dislikable. However, his despicability pales in comparison to what we feel toward Lawrence’s daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). A straight-up right-wing know-it-all brat, even the wonderful Ms. Page cannot save this character. In the film’s second half, when Vanessa has let her guard down and is at her most vulnerable, we just can’t feel for her. It’s too late.

While the dialogue in the first half is well-crafted and the conventions of set-up are in place, it is really the characters that disappoint. It is hard to feel empathy for any of these people – they may be smart, but they are more likely smart alecks.

I would love to tell you how this film ends. I’d love to say when things get resolved we find that we do like these characters, we relate to them, we are them. But the truth is, I’ll never know. When the final credits were rolling, I was already at home.

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