Rabu, April 16, 2008

Movie Review : Smart People

"Smart People" is an effortful attempt at the sort of trenchant comedy a film such as "Sideways" managed without breaking a sweat. It also poses an interesting question regarding top-billed Dennis Quaid. Why is it that he comes off well in certain roles and less well in others?

Quaid's not-quite, maybe-next-film superstardom has been foretold for decades now, ever since "Breaking Away" in 1979 and "The Right Stuff" and "Innerspace" in the 1980s. Film after film, the "international sensation" mold never solidified for him, and he didn't turn into a franchise machine and a monster marquee name like Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise. In recent years the man with the memorable shark's grin has gotten down to the business of expanding his range. In Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," Quaid's portrayal of a tortured bisexual '50s businessman caught in a Douglas Sirk melodrama he cannot control was just the right role for just the right actor, and it was like watching an actor reborn.

In "Smart People," though, the guy is plain miscast. Quaid lays on the duck walk and straps on what appears to be some midsection padding for the role of a hyper-verbal cynic and university professor specializing in Victorian literature. The actor can only schlub it up so much without coming off like a pretender. He has to work, really work, at conveying a fellow such as this: The repartee doesn't trip off his tongue, and he never seems like a bone-weary academic.

While "Smart People" wouldn't necessarily have taken off with a different leading actor, Quaid's self-conscious characterization calls attention to the artificiality of the story's construction. It's set on and off the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The widower professor, whose book cannot find a willing publisher, has two kids: a son (Ashton Holmes, a terrific young actor who played the son in "A History of Violence") in college and a daughter living at home. She's played by Ellen Page of "Juno," also terrific, though novelist turned screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier conceives the daughter as a hyper-protective Young Republican who develops a crush on Dad's adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church. She's a paradox, in other words, though Page cannot make her plausible. Some people thought the writing in "Juno" sounded glib. Yuh, well, not compared to "Smart People."

The biggest threat to the daughter's universe is her father's romance with one of his old students, an ER doc played by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Their reunion is brought about by a seizure; unable to drive for several months, the professor must depend on the Church character as driver and unreliable helpmate.) The actors are primed to give this conflict all they have, yet "Smart People" glides along on the surface of each new scene. Director Noam Burro segments everything into neat little seriocomic passages, letting an emotionally over-explanatory soundtrack do the heavy lifting. Church is most at home in his character's skin; aside from the game but strident Quaid, all the leading players are ideally cast. It's the script that isn't ideally cast.

( Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune )

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