Wednesday, January 28, 2009
On the Noggin
Smart People, joining The Visitor and Starting Out in the Evening as a string of recent movies about unhappy college professors, has a pleasingly low-key vibe. Whereas those other two pictures started out as simple character studies before demanding to be Taken Seriously, Smart People remains content with its modest ambitions to the end, which is both a strength and a failing.
Ditto the (mis)casting of Dennis Quaid (now, hard to believe, in his mid-fifties) as the misanthropic Carnegie Mellon lit professor Lawrence Weatherhold. It's hard to buy Quaid as a pretentious author, English department schemer, and widower, disengaged from his students as well as his family; even behind the beard and gruff demeanor, his inner warmth shines through. On the other hand, the actor's natural charisma makes more credible than usual the obligatory romance with a younger woman, a former student turned physician played by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Who, granted, isn't that much younger, though Mark Poirier's screenplay seems to suggest otherwise.) Lawrence meets Parker's Dr. Hartigan following a mild seizure after hitting his head that lands him in the ER. Unable to drive for a few weeks, he then enlists the help of his freeloading half-brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to play chauffeur. Chuck, however, is more intent on loosening up Lawrence's intellectually ambitious teen daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page).
It's easy to see where this is going: Lawrence learns to love again and be a better teacher, brother and father. Yet Smart People avoids the usual melodramatic pitfalls along this journey -- even a third-act surprise pregnancy is devoid of hysterics. The most enjoyable parts of the movie are when Lawrence's daughter advises him on how to play office politics and become a literary shark. (It's Vanessa who suggests that Lawrence make a bid to become department chair -- despite being head of the search committee -- and she also offers the amusingly rude title of his new book: You Can't Read!) At first I groaned at Page's interpretation of her role as Juno redux. But she develops a nice rapport with Church -- whose Chuck gently corrupts her with pot and alcohol -- and becomes, in the throes of a crush, touchingly vulnerable.
Page and Church are essentially one-note actors who find a fresh tempo in each other's presence; and Parker is the strongest she's been in years, refusing to be "the girl" of the story, creating a believable human being instead. I wish Noam Murro's aim-and-shoot direction gave his cast as much as Poirier's nuanced script. His set-ups, perfunctory at best, botch at least one potentially classic scene, when Lawrence attempts to steal his car back from a towing company. This would be easier to forgive if it wasn't in the shadow of Wonder Boys, another Pittsburgh-based, halls-of-academe comedy starring Michael Douglas (in the most richly imaginative portrait of a college professor I've ever seen, and one of my favorite performances ever), elegantly directed by Curtis Hanson and photographed with the rapturous eye of Dante Spinotti: rarely has a gritty urban landscape appeared more enchanted. Visually, Wonder Boys fully conveyed the creative energies and frustrations of its characters, whereas Smart People suffers from a disconnect. I enjoyed spending time with these characters; they're attractive, witty, and don't shout too much. I'm just not sure what -- or who -- drives them.