When I was reviewing films for a weekly radio show, I had to see practically everything that came through our modest little college town. In the few years after I had a diploma and no regular responsibilities for writing about the latest titles to grace the multiplex, I still saw nearly every major release that hit theaters. After that I was far more selectively, which sometimes leaves me wondering why I saw a particular film while it played in first-run theaters. I believe the outing that led directly into this review was because our household briefly — and occasionally to our unexpected benefit — decided we were going to follow Ellen Page anywhere.
Sometimes a film is filled with characters so consumed by their personal animosities that the film itself begins to feel angry, as if it will start barking complaints at the moviegoers about how they’re sitting too close or munching their popcorn too loudly. In Smart People Dennis Quaid’s literature professor character is angry about his deceased wife and any number of perceived slights from his academic institution, and his students are angry that he doesn’t remember their names. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an emergency room physician he encounters after a bad fall from the top of a chain link fence, and she’s angry about having to deal with him and other combative people. Ellen Page plays his daughter, angry that her S.A.T, preparation is disrupted by this medical emergency, and Ashton Holmes plays his son, who’s angry for no discernible reason. Perhaps its just some mood-based invocation of the “when in Rome” principle. The only one who regards the world with any degree of sympathy is the ne’er-do-well adopted brother played by Thomas Haden Church.
That relentless cynicism is okay by me as long as it’s accompanied by some inventive storytelling and depth of character. That’s where Smart People is really lacking. Mark Poirier’s script has a point of view, but little to express about it, and director Noam Murro films it with dutiful efficiency. There’s a grim outlook and a narrative destination point where the mandates of character development insist somewhat on the outlook lightening. The process of getting there is haphazard and poorly thought out. Characters make choices with no compelling drive to do so. You can reasonably puzzle out Page’s disgruntled exploration of the wilder parts of herself or Parker’s circling of Quaid as a love interest, but the film doesn’t provide much reason to believe in these developments. The film is barbed and clever, peppered with the intelligence that the title promises. It’s also rarely believable or built upon recognizable emotions, which makes it feel empty.