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Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
The chief virtue of this intellectual family dark comedy is the character arc of its central figure and the effect his social development has on the people in close orbit around him. Unfortunately, first-time feature director Noam Murro didn't recognize in first-time screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier's script that this conversion to the light side was a terribly long time in coming.
Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) proves the dictum that high intelligence doesn't apply across the board to everything in life. He's a walking, talking example of a scholar who has his subject of English Literature down to its subtle minuteia but has no clue and/or precious little patience to teach it. Even worse, his manner borders on contempt toward his Carnegie Mellon university students, not only by not remembering any of their names but even denying student office visits whenever he can concoct a quick exit.
To make his academic mid-life universe even more troubled, he's a widower and a father whose loss of his wife has turned him into a morose, grumpy emotional vacuum. He can barely contain the bitterness he feels because he hasn't heard from the latest publisher whom he's submitted his erudite book manuscript to and he's expecting one more in a chain of rejections for his scholarly work.
He's pretty much a failure as a father, as well, building a wall between himself and his university-age son James (Ashton Holmes). They can barely speak to one another without accusatory sparks flying. Vanessa, (Ellen Page) his daughter does talk to him, on the other hand, providing cooked meals and an argumentative veneer to the home environment. Apparently dad's intellectual clone, she's a full supporter of his publishing efforts, enveloping herself in a cloak of superiority and cold detachment. No boyfriends -- in fact, no friends, happy to be dad's little intellectual alter ego.
You wouldn't think a non-achiever could be part of this family but, then, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is the professor's brother only by adoption. He only shows up when he needs money and that time has again arrived. Larry's first impulse is to refuse Chuck a loan, then to limit his stay. But good fortune smiles upon Chuck when Larry winds up in the ER after scaling a fence to retrieve his briefcase from his car in an impound lot (yes, he's absent minded, too) and suffers a serious head wound.
This turns into a win-win when head ER doc Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) takes away his driving privileges for six months, forcing the prof to appoint lamer bro' Chuck his erstwhile chauffer. Living up to the credentials of a slacker, Chuck shows that he knows just how far he can go with a stituation, and goes there, becoming a presence that may be the rescue rope for the family.
Vanessa gloms onto Chuck like a savior from the general family routine and develops a crush, which Chuck puts in its place, however cute and winsome the teenager can be. For all his faults, freewheeling Chuck has a better handle on morality and life than all the geniuses in the household and he understands her fears and repressions better than she does. He delivers one of the funnier lines in the piece when he lovingly nails her as a "near-android."
But a man -- even a savant like professor Lawrence -- needs a woman, and one has been provided. Turns out the ER doc was a student of his some semesters ago. And, she had a crush on him in those days. And, he was the same bored-with-the-world schmuck he is now, giving her a C on a paper and not once acknowledging her interest. The experience turned her to medicine instead of Lit. and now she's his doctor. And, finally, the film is getting a shove in the right direction. There lies salvation and a passing grade.
Novelist Poirier and commercials director Murro pull it out with this new element in Larry's life, lifting the film and sending you out of the theatre with a nice glow. But, apart from the high level in the acting department, the film will remind some smart people of an SAT test.
If the script hadn't weighed so heavily on Quaid's character he might have come off better. He has always had a sufferer's vulnerability about him and retains it here, but it's put to heavy use. He was somewhat better adapted to his role as a scarred FBI agent in the recent "Vantage Point."
Page's predilection for rebellious feistiness is put to such good use you'd think the part was written for her and her exceptional take on people living insistently outside the norms. You can't but love this happy little dynamo whose face, with those full cheekbones and lips, is right out of a comic strip.
Yet, for all that, the guy who provides the biggest surprise is Church. So ideally suited to the slacker/opportunist role, ("Sideways," "Spider-man 3") this part was written unpredictably and fulfilled by him to a fine delectability, forging a most positive character.
Less well realized is Parker as the off-again, on-again love interest. Through no fault of hers, the part wasn't the strongest written one and the dynamics of her relationship with Larry is less than magnetic and begs a higher dose of chemistry.
Visually, the production shows a low-budget lack of tonality and it will not go down as cinematographer Toby Irwin's best credit. The soundtrack features a couple of songs that should appeal to the folkie rhythm fan, but otherwise standard.
In all, "Smart People" has that arc of character development that ultimately makes the film something of an enjoyment, it can also boast of a certain inventiveness, but it's not smart enough to be called stimulating.
~~ Jules Brenner