Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti, Camille Mana, David Denman, Don Wadsworth, Robert Haley, Patrick Sebes, Kevin James Doyle, Paul Huber
Written by: Mark Poirier
Directed by: Noam Murro
MPAA Rating: R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality
Running Time: 95
Date: 01/20/2008

Smart People (2008)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Think Again

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you want to know why Juno was such a big hit, just compare it to this ultra-bland copy, written in the same witty manner, but without any of the playfulness. Ellen Page once again plays a snarky, well-spoken character, quick with a snappy remark for every occasion. Here she's Vanessa, a young Republican obsessed with perfect SAT scores and college, and a failure at social activities and fun. (She claims that, because of her intelligence, she doesn't need to compensate for anything.) Her widowed father is Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a frumpy, pot-bellied professor who long ago retreated into pomposity and cynicism. The movie's gimmick is that he has a seizure with absolutely no adverse effects except that it suspends his driver's license for six months. The professor's slovenly (but life-loving), adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in, ostensibly to drive the professor around, though very little driving actually takes place. Instead he "teaches" father and daughter how to "loosen up," a favorite theme of Hollywood movies. (The same movie could have been made with Ben Stiller and Jack Black.) Subsequently, the professor becomes involved with his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student (he gave her a C on her paper). It's very difficult to write and play self-involved, intelligent characters like Quaid's (the reclusive writer in last year's Starting Out in the Evening is another example) because they always lag a few steps behind the audience and, by comparison, never seem very smart. Writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro (both rookies) try to make up for this lack with would-be cleverness and crafty dialogue, but it's all too transparent and obvious. Juno's dialogue was artificial but sounded good; it was musical. This dialogue sounds like writing, like gears turning. Likewise, the evenly-lit, medium-paced movie has absolutely no atmosphere, even though it takes place in Pittsburgh over the winter holidays. Too bad these "smart people" aren't as smart as they think they are. Rent Wonder Boys (2000) instead.

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