Directed by Noam Murro
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 95 minutes
Audio: PCM 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 34.99
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Review Date: August 8, 2008
A rather glum and somewhat dispiriting comedy-drama, Noam Murro’s Smart People takes a terrific cast, some great dialog, and mixes them together in an altogether sour soufflé. Obviously looking to catch some of the sophisticated aura of Sideways, Smart People just misses the mark. The effort is there, but a connection is never made.
Widowed English professor Lawrence Waterhole (Dennis Quaid) has shut down emotionally, and his work and ability to communicate with others has similarly spiraled downward. His brilliant daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is robotically perfect in school and at home but resembles nothing remotely human. Son James (Ashton Holmes) has escaped from the sterile environs of home by living on campus at Carnegie-Mellon University. Into their lives drops two saviors: Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) and ER doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who treats Lawrence after he experiences a surprising seizure. Both of these breaths of fresh air bring some life into the constipated conformity of the Waterhole household, but such disruptions never occur smoothly. The film details the ragtag ups and downs of the Waterholes as they reenter society.
Mark Jude Poirier’s script is filled with literary allusions and smart dialog even if much of what is said doesn’t resemble everyday speech. Yes, these are smart people, but for the audience to identify with them at all, some effort needs to be made to write intelligently but in the vernacular. It sounds wholly like movie dialog and not normal speech patterns. Noam Murro’s direction doesn’t accomplish any miracles either with scenes competently handled but with no visual style or flair to set the movie apart from the mundane. There is one terrific moment when Church’s Chuck is meeting and greeting Parker’s Janet on the family front porch. There’s a vivacity there missing elsewhere, and then it all becomes clear: the movie is focusing on the wrong Waterhole. Thomas Haden Church’s character is so quirky, engaging, and life-affirming that despite his problems, we’re immediately on his side and interested in what he does. He also has much more obvious chemistry with Sarah Jessica Parker than Dennis Quaid does. Their pairing seems manufactured by rote but isn’t one that’s ever really interesting.
Dennis Quaid is certainly not typecast as the academic curmudgeon, and he struggles against type trying to map out a character with these broad guideposts. He’s only partially successful. Sarah Jessica Parker shows some sporadic spark but spends much of the movie in a mumbling funk. Ellen Page was cast in the film prior to her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno, but her intelligence and quick way with a quip is already in place as she brings some life to her one dimensional character. Thomas Haden Church walks away with this movie, however. Outrageous in some ways and quietly cunning in others, he makes dozens of actor’s choices throughout the film that radiate with cheer and fun, both gravely needed in this sometimes disheartening concoction. Ashton Holmes’ James is a very underdeveloped character in the script, and David Denman as a hospital neurologist also might have been given more to do to spice things up in the story a bit.
The film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The film looks very good for the most part with strong color and very deep black levels. Flesh tones veer just a bit to the brown side, but overall, the picture is strong and solid with no noticeable artifacts. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The PCM 5.1 (6.9 Mbps) audio mix does very little with the surrounds, typical for most film comedies. Nuno Bettencourt’s guitar score sounds very nice around the edges of this laidback film, but there are next to no instances where any sound truly envelopes the listener.
Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier contribute an audio commentary that’s as laidback as the film they’re describing. Though they talk fairly consistently for the run of the picture, the easygoing nature of their conversation isn’t especially revelatory.
All of the featurettes and bonus material are presented in 480i apart from the previews.
“The Smartest People” is a 16 ½-minute interview with many important cast (Quaid, Parker, Page) and crew members (director, writer, producer) talking about their work on the project, what it’s like shooting in Pittsburgh, and praising one another’s efforts in the movie.
“Not So Smart” is the 2-minute gag reel which has one or two genuine laughs in the foul-ups with the stars.
The disc offers 9 deleted scenes, all very brief, which can be viewed in one 9 ¾ minute chunk or watched individually.
“Smart People at Sundance” is 4 minutes with the principal cast members (except for Ellen Page who wrote a note read by Church) and director Murro talking to the appreciative audience at the Sundance Film Festival.
The disc offers 1080p previews of The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, among others.
Smart People isn’t funny enough or dramatic enough to suit most moviegoers’ tastes. It’s a middle-of-the-road effort with a splendid cast dealing with mediocre material as best they can.