Monday, February 2, 2009

Save the Brains

Smart People
Netflix via XBox 360

They don't make a lot of character studies with name actors in the English language, so even one with funny bumps like Smart People is welcome. Among other things, it reminds you of why Sarah Jessica Parker became popular in the first place, before "Sex and the City" rendered her ubiquitous and obnoxious. The also lately annoying Thomas Haden Church wins back a lot of the bad feeling his grimaced-in Spider-Man 3 role engendered with another winning rake role, not far removed from the Sideways one that saved him from being remembered as Lowell from "Wings ." Dennis Quaid has already established a rhythm of doing a prestige piece after every inspirational Disney sports picture, and he's fine here, although he lets himself go for the role less so than Michael Douglas did for a similar one in Wonder Boys. Against three veteran actors at their most likable, Ellen Page holds her own, but this is her third strike. She's done more or less the same character in three films now (Juno and Hard Candy being the others, although she doesn't give birth or torture anybody to suicide in this one) and needs to try a different delivery and a different backdrop for her next one.

It's actually funny how much Page resembles veteran comedienne Parker in this one, though their characters don't share a lot of scenes. Both have a way of investing a one-word answer with comedy through well-chosen slight changes in pitch and duration. Each of the four central roles in Smart People are riffs on the same sort of obsessive behavior. English professor Quaid, his tightly wound daughter (Page), his couch-surfing adoptive brother (Church), and the doctor who treats him after he falls climbing over an impound fence and gives himself a seizure (Parker) are all high-I.Q. types with little to no emotional intelligence. This saves a lot of wasted time in dialogue, because these are the sorts of people who are too impatient for metaphors or politeness. Refreshingly, the characters (especially Church's Chuck) don't wait until the movie is two-thirds of the way through to begin speaking directly to what's obvious from the beginning. The conflicts aren't created by stupid characters who can't identify their problems, but by bright ones who can't figure out why it is they're so unhappy even though they're so obviously smart.

Parker's doctor, a former of student of Quaid's Dr. Lawrence Wetherhold, gets the least time on screen, and is trying to date him so she's the one with most reason to put her best face forward. In a lesser movie she'd be a plot device with punchlines, a love interest with no neuroses of her own. The way writer Mark Poirier and diector Noam Murro, newcomers to the big screen, gave her her own set of hangups and communicated them quickly without drifting away from the family at the center, was what most impressed me about Smart People.

As for the things I didn't like: Well, it's one thing for self-obsessed Professor Wetherhold to show no interest in his college-aged son, but not the filmmakers themselves. Ashton Holmes' James gets most of his character development in montages and the other characters all seem to forget he exists whenever he's not around, which is most of the time. When something happens to him, randomly, at the end of the movie to tie in with the things that have already happened to the meaningful characters, it feels all wrong. It's not needed at all, and nor by extension is the other kid's existence entirely. The other thing that really bothered me about Smart People was the music. Page's Juno was arguably a better soundtrack than a movie thanks to a library of songs that meant something to the characters and said stuff about them too. The Smart People soundtrack, chipper little acoustic ditties with amateurish synth and drum-machine backing mostly composed by Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt, is crummy as music, doesn't suit the tone of the movie even a little, and is distinctly the kind of music that all of the characters would hate.

It's a shaggy dog kind of movie, losing track of its framing devices less than halfway through. Church is supposed to be Quaid's driver after his accident, but the film isn't really interested in their relationship so he maybe only serves his function properly twice. The professor's recovery could be another way of artificially forcing some structure, but it's never taken seriously and is also forgotten quickly. There's nothing wrong with a movie that has nowhere to go, and Smart People supplies the necessary force in characters that are interesting to watch even when they're not headed anywhere. But unfortunately the filmmakers aren't quite gutsy enough to see it through to the end, throwing in an extremely well-worn pregnancy twist to give the movie a climax, a resolution, and something to run during the end credits. I think I would have liked it better had no one learned any lessons.

David Denman has a minor role in Smart People, as one of the other doctors at Parker's hospital. Do you know who David Denman is? I did, and I didn't. His most noticeable role, the one from which I recognized his face in this movie, is as Roy the warehouse guy, Pam's ex-fiancé on "The Office." But he was also on "Angel" as Skip the Demon, an infrequent but extremely memorable recurring character whose spiky full-body makeup made the actor beneath unrecognizable. That's where I'd seen his name, many times, in the credits of episodes and in the "Buffy" and "Angel" sourcebooks I have. So I knew the name, knew the face, but never put the two together. Skip the Demon is Roy from "The Office," and it took Smart People for me to finally figure it out. How dumb am I?

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