Dysfunctional families are a staple of indie filmmaking, providing the perfect backdrop for mixing comedy and drama. (As evidence, see: Dan in Real Life, Little Miss Sunshine, The Upside of Anger, Pieces of April, The Squid and the Whale.) Unfortunately, these seriocomic clans have become something of a crutch lately--as easy a subject for one’s first screenplay as road movies were in the ’90s. On the surface of their new film Smart People, first-time filmmakers Mark Poirier (he wrote it) and Noam Murro (he directed it) are in danger of stepping into all the cliché pitfalls of the genre. Fortunately, an intelligent script and a fine cast conspire to make this a sharper-than-average slice of indie satire.
The main problem with dysfunctional family dramedies is that it’s difficult to come up with a completely messed-up clan and still make them likable enough to watch for an hour and a half. Noah Baumbach’s last film, Margot at the Wedding, made that particular error, providing audiences with a collection of thoroughly deplorable human beings. After 91 minutes in their presence, it was hard to give a damn who got over what childhood trauma.
Smart People skates a thin line, making its characters just crazy enough to provide some humor and just sane enough to add some drama. Our dysfunctional family unit for this go-around is headed by one Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a tenured English Lit professor at Carnegie Mellon who’s clearly given up on giving a shit about anything. Turns out he’s not self-absorbed, just emotionally wounded, having lost his wife several years ago to a terminal illness. His younger daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page, still hot off Juno), is turning into an uptight, overachieving Young Republican and his older son, James (Ashton Holmes, “Boston Legal”), is unsuccessfully hiding out in a dorm room trying to escape his crazy kin.
Into this mess of unresolved emotions drops Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), Lawrence’s ne’er-do-well brother (or “adopted brother,” as everyone is quick to point out). Knowing the aging adolescent is only here to mooch some money, Lawrence tells him to get lost. But an inconvenient accident leaves Lawrence unable to drive, and he reluctantly turns to his brother (“adopted brother”) for assistance.
If you’ve followed these sorts of films in the past, you know that rebellious, unreliable relatives are there to loosen uptight, emotionally constipated people. Also, marijuana is a fine catalyst for breaking down inhibitions. And, finally, if you can build up to some sort of uncomfortable holiday dinner, you know you’re on the right track. Smart People manages all these things, but it does so in a clever and satisfyingly realistic manner.
Obviously, Lawrence has been in the dumps since the death of his wife. He needs to get over it, of course, but he can’t do that without a little female intervention. Enter Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a doctor who treats Lawrence for his inconvenient little accident. Turns out she was a former student of his, and she always harbored a schoolgirl crush on the prof. Now, a decade or two down the line, she’s more or less free to indulge it. Unfortunately, our boy Lawrence has a couple more emotional breakdowns penciled into his schedule before he’s ready to get on with his love life.
The title criticism inherent in Murro and Poirier’s film is that all these people are painfully intelligent. But if “Frasier” has taught us anything, it’s that even brilliant, cultured folks can screw up their lives in hilarious ways. Everyone here has focused their brainpower into some highly specialized field of knowledge that leaves them clueless about coping with life, love, family and friends. Therein lies both our humor and our moral.
Predictable, but never wholly contrived, Smart People is a witty, gray-toned comedy aimed at the same sort of grad-school audiences who chuckled and winced their way through Sideways. If that sounds like you, then pull up a chair and join the table. Thanksgiving dinner’s about to be served.
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