x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Learning curve

Smart People's witty script and strong cast are let down by a slow pace and contrived ending.

Thomas Haden Church and Dennis Quaid play troubled brothers in Smart People.
Thomas Haden Church and Dennis Quaid play troubled brothers in Smart People.

Smart People Director: Noam Murro Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church One imagines that the writer of Smart People, Mark Poirier, was aiming for irony in his depiction of an academic yet dysfunctional family. The problem is that it feels more smug than anything else.

Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, a grumpy, middle-aged literature professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. We know immediately that he is an academic because he has been so obviously dressed for the part in tatty blazers and woollen V-neck jumpers that sag over his paunch (he put on 25 pounds for the role). He even carries a brown satchel. But the clothes are the least of Lawrence's problems. He is widowed and wallowing, with a house still full of his wife's clothes because he refuses to chuck them out. His book manuscript has been refused by every publisher, his adopted, middle-aged brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), shows up looking for money, and his relationship with his two children is rocky.

Ellen Page, the waspish young star of Juno, plays his 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa. She is a member of the Young Republicans, obsessive about schoolwork and miserable. "I think self-absorption's underrated," she drawls to her father at one point. Preaching to the converted there, Vanessa. Ashton Holmes plays her older brother, James, a Carnegie Mellon student who is often absent from home life because he prefers writing poetry in his dormitory.

The missing link in this picture of domestic disharmony comes in the form of Uncle Chuck, who is grudgingly allowed to stay in the attic. He wanders around the house in pyjamas, eats cereal on the sofa and gamely tries to persuade Vanessa to loosen up a little. "These children haven't been properly parented in many years," he says at one point. "They're practically feral. That's why I was brought in." It's one of several strong moments that should raise an audible laugh - which seems remarkable given that the storyline (such as it is) moves at the pace of a sloth. A blind one. Perhaps with a broken leg, lugging a heavy rucksack.

An incident at the car pound involving a high fence takes Lawrence to hospital, where he is attended by a literature-turned-medicine student, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). One of her colleagues, who perhaps should have thought harder when he took the Hippocratic oath, lets slip that she used to harbour a crush on the professor. Opportunity is kicked wide open. There ensues one date, bad, and then another, better. Lawrence finds out that his book has been accepted by Penguin. Meanwhile, Chuck and Vanessa are bonding at home, and he takes her out to celebrate her acceptance into Stanford. Things look rosy for a brief whisper of time.

But this is an indie film, not a Disney cartoon. Problems erupt - though erupt is too violent a word, suggesting seismic plot developments. In Smart People, nothing seems terribly seismic. Lawrence and Janet split because he is too wrapped up in himself and his work (there is no shouting; she simply wanders away in an airport scene). And Uncle Chuck starts drifting away from the house. Those who have seen Sideways will be familiar with the melancholic feel of the film (both were produced by Michael London). Smart People's poignant, witty script is carried by strong performances from a solid cast - most significantly Quaid, Page and Haden Church, who essentially plays the same character he did in Sideways. The film is also an impressive debut feature film from the director Noam Murro.

But it's frustrating that the strong script, acting and direction are slightly let down by the smug ending. How terribly clever to call a film Smart People when, in real life, they're pretty dim. And how simply brilliant to have the one person who doesn't seem smart, Uncle Chuck, help make everything smooth and smiley again in the end. It's too tidily done, too neat and contrived. They all seem to have learnt too little, and that doesn't seem very smart at all.