Release Date: April 11
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Jude Poirier
Cinematographer: Toby Irwin
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church
Studio/Run Time: Miramax, 95 mins.
If movie genres were chemicals, Smart People would have some serious combustion potential. Debut director Noam Murro mixes a volatile combination of dysfunctional family melodrama with comedic romance in an economic package that avoids fully committing to either genre. The film maintains a perpetually understated tone of introverted frustration as it follows the Wetherhold family, a clan of ingenious overachievers who understand everything except themselves and each other. If this sounds familiar, then you've probably spent time with the works of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. Murro and screenwriter Poirier attempt to innovate on their predecessors' output by cramming the entire production into a nifty date movie format, festooned with Sarah Jessica Parker. They shouldn’t have.
The narrative features Dennis Quaid as a killjoy English professor who condescends his way through life at the expense of his family’s happiness. After experiencing a stroke, the derisive educator is forced to confront his loneliness through interacting with his emotionally distraught family and his comely new doctor (Parker). Despite its exhausted convention in modern cinema, the Wetherholds’ nuclear-family meltdown grounds the characters it so modestly illustrates. Poirier pens the dialogue with such subdued restraint and wit that the family’s nuances are much more tangible than any theatrical delivery could provide. Thomas Hayden Church’s “giant toddler” of an adopted brother jibes Quaid on all of the sexual innuendo and caustic asides expected from the role, but also balances the frat boy antics with an unexpected moral compass. Ellen Page plays the bizarro version of Juno as an overambitious high school Republican who still manages to slice flesh with snarky one liners. Colorful and interesting, the character arcs don’t bend in extreme angles over drastic distances. This minimalist approach serves as the film's most valuable asset and differentiating factor.
And this would be fantastic if the movie wasn’t propelled by one of the most stagnant romance tales in recent memory. While plenty of silver screen misanthropes have entertained love (Harold and Maude and the sociopaths from Closer come to mind), there still has to be substantial chemistry for the viewers to care whether a relationship thrives or fails. Parker and Quaid are about as fun as middle-age speed dating victims: scared, aggravated, and ultimately, apathetic to one another. The entire dynamic feels tacked on and supplemental, an afterthought shoved into the spine of an otherwise decent flick.
Ultimately, Smart People breathes in its own space—a pleasant rumination on the struggle between aspiration and happiness bisected by a distracting plot line. If indie domestic disputes and lethargic romance aren’t your idea of a good time, though, you’d be a smart person to stay away.