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.


Jason Bellamy said...

Good review. I agree with almost all of it, though I think I enjoyed Quaid more than you. It's certainly against-type casting, but I was impressed by the way he settled into his beard, gut and shuffle-limp. And he really made me believe he was a thoughtless pig. The fact that the twinkle of Quaid's charm shines through the character is the reason it works; allowing us to believe that Parker's character could still see something in him.

Interesting that you mention "Wonder Boys." Maybe I need to give that movie another chance. I know a handful of people who love it, and when I saw it my reaction was closer to, "meh."

Craig said...

It's hard for me to dislike Quaid in anything. I think, though, here he's giving a decent imitation of an academic, but not a fully inhabited portrayal. That kind of character doesn't seem completely natural to him, but I admired enough of the effort that I didn't consider it fatal.

A bigger problem for me is the mise-en-scene. Honestly, Carnegie Mellon is one of the most architecturally interesting campuses in the nation; how could the director and DP make it look so bland, so irrelevant to the story?

Wonder Boys just gets so many things right, the tactile atmosphere of that same campus and city among them. It also nails academic culture in a way few films have matched -- the politics and competitiveness and bouts of despair, yes, but also a genuinely warm and pervasively hopeful spirit. Curtis Hanson must have been in a benign and generous mood when he made that movie. And Michael Douglas, whom I've been lukewarm on for much of his career, is a miracle. As I think Michael Sragow wrote, he creates a character that's totally unique: tolerant of others, yet angry at himself.

Craig said...

I also should give a little more praise to Ellen Page. In some respects, the character's a bit fuzzy: is the fact that she belongs to the Young Republicans meant to be taken ironically or straight? But other touches are right on the money, like how the manner in which she takes care of her father, cooks and dresses is meant to show how she's attempted to fill in the void left by her mother while sacrificing aspects of herself.