Smart People
A Film Directed by Noam Murro
Screenplay by Mark Porier

The new film from first time feature director Noam Murro, with a screenplay from first-time writer Mark Porier is surprisingly polished for a debut effort. But beneath the surface polish, there is something missing, which is why this good-looking, well-acted, soundly-crafted film feels like it is less than it ought to be.

Given the level of professionalism in the film industry, it is not surprising that even neophytes can hire a crew that makes their film look and sound like the work of ten-year veterans - most of the crew probably are. But fine film-making requires more than gloss. It requires a good story about interesting and believable characters, compellingly told.Smart People clearly and admirably aspires toward that goal, but with a derivative and pedestrian script and an inability to marshal the energy and daring to use characters fully, it doesn’t achieve it.

The story concerns a dysfunctional family struggling to break free from the patterns and habits which have become obstacles in their various lives. The head of the family is Literature Professor (and candidate for Department Head) Laurence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widower who even after six years still clings to his late wife’s clothing and his own grief, unable to move on with this life.

His son James (Ashton Holmes) is a college student and budding poet, completely alienated emotionally from his self-absorbed father. His daughter,Vanessa (Ellen Page) is an “acheivement-addicted” high-school senior, compulsively seeking her father’s approval and metaphorically seeking to take her mother’s place in the family. Into this mix comes the professor’s ne’er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), a drifter with a rebellious streak who is not above depending on his brother even as he tweaks the hand that feeds him.

The pivot point of the film is the introduction of Janet Hartigan (sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of the professor who had a crush on him in spite of his dismissive treatment. She is now a doctor, and happens to be attending the ER when Whetherhold injures himself in a silly display of defiance. He finds himself inexplicably attracted to her, but his emotionally-arrested personality and their difficult history initially create an obstacle to a connection. between them.

Meanwhile, subplots unfold around this central theme. One follows the tightly-wound Vanessa’s misguided attempts to liberate herself - including by trying to initiate an inappropriate relationship with her much older uncle-by-adoption, and more usefully to escape the family circle by attending college 2,000 mile from home. Another - in very cursory form - suggests James’s attempts to become an adult in his own right first by getting a poem published in a major magazine - without bothering to tell his father - and then by seeking affirmation and connection through sexual acting-out. The least satisfying of all resolves around the question of what Chuck’s next step will be and how the brothers will resolve their “odd-couple” relationship.

There are potentially interesting stories in all of these characters, conflicts and interactions, but the failure here is that instead of plumbing them in an original and daring way, the film-makers have chosen to make easy, familiar choices which are far too predictable and ends with a more-or-less “happily ever after” epilogue that seems stale and contrived. And this despite performances that are comitted, nuanced and engaging.

Murro has made good casting choices and his actors have worked hard for him, to find more in the material than is written there - even, in some cases, to overcome dialogue that shades over into the pretentious and artificial. At least he has let the actors make the film seem better than it is upon reflection, and not interfered - maybe even encouraged and inspired - a process that makes the emotional tensions between characters the most exciting part of the film, and makes it worth watching in spite of its shortcomings.

Dennis Quaid plays Professor Whetherhold with full-on self-absorbtion, making his own grief, his own erudition, his own arrogance the center of his world, oblivious to the effects he has on those around him, Yet the bundle of nervous ticks, the mannerisms, the ungainly, disjointed walk and body language - which Murro to his credit does a great deal visually to allow Quaid to develop - eloquently reflect the mass of neuroses and the core of vulnerability he is trying to conceal. It’s a very fine piece of work.

Thomas Hayden Church makes Chuck an interesting contrast to his brother. Spontaneous where his brother is controlled (and controlling), tolerant and accepting where his brother is demanding, Church exposes the dual nature of these qualites, as both strengths and weaknesses in Chuck’s character. The contrast as written has something formulaic about its odd-couple dynamic, but Church and Quaid make something more interesting - if never fully realised - out of it.

Ellen Page makes the sharp-witted, intellectually-precocious but emotionally-clueless Vanessa sympathetic. She conveys Vanessa’s underlying desperation and loneliness, but doesn’t telegraph it, so that when she acts out towards Chuck, it really is a shocking moment for both the characters and the audience. Unfortunately, Murro and Porier pull back from developing this moment, leaving its impact and resonance as another promising but unexplored loose end. Ashton Holmes seems capable and in the few scenes he has, manages to convey something of the “self-raised” young-adult, who has internalized some of his father’s defensive self-absorption in a different - and possibly more creative - form, which nonetheless seems that it may impede him as much as serve him. But again, we don’t see enough of this intriguing dynamic beyond a tantalizing glimpse.

Sarah Jessica Parker - an actress whose work has never risen above average - isn’t called upon to do much here either, but unlike the rest of the ensemble, she seems content with that. Where the rest of the cast seem to be trying to invent unspoken back-stories that suggest greater depths in the superficiality of the script, Parker seems content to stay on the surface, read the lines as written and leave it at that. Of course, a stronger performance probably wouldn’t have “saved” the film, but it would have “saved” her performance, which is distinctively flat and lifeless, especially compared to the hard work of her co-stars.

As I said above, the production values are polished. The sets and settings in and around Carnagie Mellon University and Pittsburgh are evocative. The camera work is solid, and even a little better than that, with interesting use of movement and angle as well as compositon that makes room for a lot of information to be conveyed visually - like Quaid’s physical characterization of Wetherhold. The music is interesting - mostly singer/songwriter Indie-pop-flavored. It is a fitting sound track for this low-key, introspective tale.

If only the longing, uncertainty and hope expressed in the music could have been explored as touchingly and originally in the film itself it might have come closer to realizing its potential. For a dual debut between screenwriter and director, this film shows a remarkable degree of accomplishment. If the filmmakers can bring their grasp of cinematic story-telling and their concern for honest exploration of the human dilemma up to the level of their ability to handle formula smoothly and their technical proficiency, they may produce something even more worth watching.

That's my take on it. What's yours?