, 95 min, 2008
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier (written by) (as Mark Jude Poirier)
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker
Noam Murro’s Smart People is a dark-ish comedy, an acidically-witty, if somewhat watered-down, little independent film about family, loss, love and – above all – being smart. Or at least a smart ass.
Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a literary professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His wife is dead, he can’t remember his students’ names because he doesn’t get to really know them, and he is a bit befuddled in general. Example/plot point: After his car is towed, Professor Weatherhold climbs the chain-link fence at the impound lot to retrieve his briefcase, and falls to the ground, suffering a mild concussion – after he has gotten his briefcase.
He is taken to a hospital and cared for by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a sexy if aging former student who Weatherhold has little to no memory of, and who harbors something of a grudge over a paper she “worked hard on.” Weatherhold has two children – one is James (Ashton Holmes, who you might recognize from Cronenberg’s A History of Violence), a poetry-crafting young guy who loafs about on campus and tries to avoid seeing his father. The other child is devoted daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page, continuing a streak of clever young people after Juno), a too-witty-by-half Young Republican who has just a scintilla more wit than her father ever could dream of possessing.
Since the Professor can’t drive, and insurance won’t cover a chauffeur, so enters Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church ofSideways), a sloppy, scruffy adopted brother who can’t be relied upon (except to get drunk and smoke pot) and who Weatherhold must look to for help when he needs it.
This tiny little would-be extended family is the creation of writer Mark Poirier, who peppers his screenplay with sharp one-liners, amusing observations and clever insights. Vanessa, for example, is not precisely the caricature she could easily have turned out to be – none of these people are.
The film is the directorial debut of Noam Murro, who was once, according to IMDB, slated to make his feature debut (alarmingly) with the wretched The Ring Two (2005). Presumably, he elected not to and went with this one instead. Wise choice.
The film has a pseudo-indie-vibe going on, though one suspects it had the budget and marketing campaign to be something more (or less) than an independent film. Still, it’s smart and often very funny, and well-acted enough to pass muster.