Knight at the Movies Archives
Two new indie releases irked and I'm out of the closet with my lack of enthusiasm for Miss Page
Director Noam Murro who has directed commercials for Nike, Volkswagen, Starbucks, and many other clients moves into feature films
with Smart People, a movie far from the sleek advertisements these would have suggested. It’s the story of the reawakening of
an overbearing college professor and his family. As the title asserts, everyone in the Wetherhold family is smart from father
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a professor of Victorian literature is college, to son James (Ashton Holmes), and daughter
Vanessa (Ellen Page), a sarcastic high school overachiever. But they’re also smart assess; a caustic trio that characters from Margot
at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale would love. Audiences who love seeing cranky, emotionally blocked characters find their
prickly way to redemption and a chance to bloom will be happy to endure the withering onscreen insults but I didn’t have much use
for these dyspeptic folks and was happy to see them go at the fade out.
The plot of Smart People has two threads: the first is a tenuous romance between Lawrence and a former student, now a doctor, Janet
(Sarah Jessica Parker), who attends to him in the ER after Lawrence has an accident. The other plot involves the arrival of Lawrence’
s ne’er do well, self absorbed brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) who is in the movie to represent the not so bright audience
members. Chuck screws up constantly but lets it roll off his back (the opposite of the anxiety prone Whetherhold’s) and he exhorts
the uptight, brainiac Wetherholds to do the same. The movie details the convergence of these two emotional ideologies.
Lawrence, meanwhile, is about as uptight as they come. To make him appear more “professor like,” I guess, Quaid is given a
beard, a phony, protruding gut (in real life the actor is renowned for his six pack abs), and is made to be so disagreeable that his
own publishers suggest he title his next book, “You Can’t Read.” Vanessa is even more of a pill. When Janet phones her up from
the ER to inform her of her father’s accident Vanessa is so tart that Janet calls her a “bitch.” I thought, “My sentiments exactly” and
then wrote on my notepad, “Why does this actor irritate me so much?”
Here I must confess that I have my own cranky ax to grind: I can’t stand Ellen Page. I know, I know, most of the movie going world
seems to find this young actress God’s gift to the cinema but I am not among them. I have seen Page in Hard Candy, X Men: The
Last Stand, Juno and now Smart People. I have also watched her interviewed by Barbara Walters and others on TV and I honestly can’t
tell the difference between Page the condescending teen onscreen and Page the condescending young adult off screen. Is it just the
whine that she brings to every line reading? Maybe I just don’t “get her” or maybe Page’s screen personality just rubs me the wrong
way – the way that Jennifer Anniston’s bangs always do, the way that Tom Cruise’s overwrought intensity does. Everyone, critic and
casual moviegoer alike, has inexplicable reasons why they either respond or don’t respond to certain film personalities. But
responses can change – I used to feel the same antipathy (big time) toward Richard Gere and now like him in just about everything
he does. And I loved Anniston’s performance in Friends With Money. So perhaps Page will grow on me as the movies add up.
In the meantime, if you’re a fan of Page’s work, want to see Quaid in a non-action film role, Haden Church in typical stoner mode,
Parker in a part not far from the anxious tics of Carrie Bradshaw (and as a warm up to Sex and the City just down the pike) and are
just in the mood for one of these by the numbers crabby pants character driven movies, Smart People is your ticket. Part of my
crankiness with these movies, I realize, has to do with their over-familiarity, not just from Baumbach’s pictures, but those of
Alexander Payne’s and a whole crop of similarly driven indie films. In fact, I assumed this was a Payne movie until I saw Murro’s
name in the credits, so closely does it resemble plot points from Sideways and Election.
Personally, I like my crabby conversion character movies along the lines of, say, The Accidental Tourist where the transformation of
fuss budget William Hurt to an unpredictable life of messiness with kooky Geena Davis was accompanied by the syrupy, plaintive
John Williams music. Maybe Ellen Page could play the Geena Davis part in the eventual remake. She could add her innate know-it-
all attitude to the role. Maybe by then I’ll even get her and will respond. Maybe not.
Another screen hunk – Ryan Reynolds – also steps out of familiar territory in Chaos Theory a movie that starts out promising a
modern day Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex comedy and then segues into a sodden relationship drama – though neither is particularly
I am big on the “To Do” lists but Reynolds’ character, Frank Allen, a renowned efficiency expert, has got me beat by a mile. This is
a guy with note cards in his pocket – he’s anal to the point of pathological. Naturally, Frank’s obsession is going to get off track in a
major way – hence the potentially “wacky” Hudson-Day tee hee naughty sex mix ups where a series of misunderstandings widens
until the male character has dug a hole so deep with the leading lady he might as well keep going until he reaches China. The plot
heads off in this direction and the Bacharachish-Mancini 60s soft pop loungy background score with the muted horns help take it
But Reynolds is no Hudson or Jack Lemmon and Emily Mortimer as his frustrated wife, though fine, doesn’t exactly have the
effervescence of Day or Dorothy Provine. Reynolds tries hard but doesn’t seem to have the talent for farce and there’s none of the
madness or gleeful desperation in his eyes needed for such a role. Stuart Townsend in the Dean Martin smarmy best friend role
offers promise as does Constance Zimmer as Mortimer’s acidic gal pal but both are sidelined when the movie veers into deep waters
(though Townsend is brought back as a plot device).
One thing is for sure: the movie lives up to its title. How else to explain the random switch from such a dizzy set up with such
promise to a typical, by the numbers relationship drama? Chaos Theory, indeed.
Imitation of Movies:
Smart People-Chaos Theory
Expanded Edition of 4-9-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.